Isabell Wideman: Take back the night by turning off lights

Franciso Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The moon is eclipsed by the Earth's Shadow early Tuesday morning as seen from Bryce Canyon near the E.T. formation as it is affectionately known by the local rangers. Bryce Canyon, famed for its dark skies is a great place to marvel at the stars and this week's blood moon.

“Why not?” I thought when I signed up for the first class in dark sky studies at the University of Utah. As a civil and environmental engineering major, I wanted something to set me apart on my resume, but I was not expecting to find a field that I would be so passionate about.

I’m from Missouri and, typically, people there don’t really know or care about sustainability. Growing up near St. Louis, I hardly gave the stars a second thought. It never crossed my mind that an excess of artificial light prevents us from seeing the night sky. By the time I went home for fall break a couple months in, my attitude towards the issue had completely changed.

During fall break, I went with a friend to the St. Louis Science Center which, come to find out, has a planetarium. I convinced my friend to attend a show about the moon in the IMAX theater, and the speaker showed us what the night sky in St. Louis would look like without any light pollution. Seeing the projections of the stars over the room is one of the only times in my entire life that I would ever use the word “breathtaking.” Knowing what we were missing out on as a society was frustrating, which in turn made me determined to create awareness about the problem.

I get to put my passion into practice as a Dark Sky intern at Tracy Aviary, and I am ecstatic to work with an organization that cares so much about light pollution and its impacts on our world.

Artificial light at night has many negative impacts. Nocturnal wildlife are heavily affected. Light pollution allows predators to hunt more easily and in turn, their prey are more vulnerable. Additionally, more than 300 bird species undergo long, seasonal migrations, and the majority will do so at night due to calmer skies and fewer predators. An unnaturally brighter night sky draws birds into an unfamiliar human environment and disorients them, consequently resulting in injuries and even fatalities from collisions with buildings.

In 2017, Tracy Aviary launched a citizen science study examining the effects of light pollution on birds that migrate through Salt Lake City and found that, in one year, 44 birds representing 19 different species had collided with buildings in just 20 downtown blocks.

It’s easy to hear these statistics and feel helpless, but fortunately citizens can do a lot to improve this conservation issue. International Dark Sky Week, April 19-26, is a great time to get involved.

Recognizing an opportunity to address a conservation issue in Salt Lake City, Tracy Aviary initiated Lights Out Salt Lake, which is the first initiative in Utah for residents and business owners to turn off any nonessential lighting during peak migratory months to mitigate the impacts of light pollution on migrating birds in the region. Moreover, Tracy Aviary is looking for citizen scientists to take part in Salt Lake Avian Collision Survey by simply walking around the block and reporting data. To learn more, check out the community science page on Tracy Aviary’s conservation site.

The issue is complex, but the solution is simple. As citizens, we can encourage residents and local businesses to turn off unnecessary outdoor and indoor lighting at night or use curtains to keep light in, especially between peak migration hours of 11 p.m. until 3 a.m. For necessary nighttime lighting, consider dark-sky friendly fixtures for homes and businesses such as warm colored light bulbs, motion-sensor lights or shielding light fixtures.

The night sky is our heritage. Countless stories, legends and poems were written about the stars, and some people dedicate their whole lives trying to unlock their mysteries. With current lighting technology, it is within our capacity to seize the night sky again and bring back the stars for future generations.

Isabell Wideman

Isabell Wideman is a civil and environmental engineering student at the University of Utah, minoring in dark sky studies, and a Dark Skies intern at Tracy Aviary.