Seeing the Light

by Don Rodriguez


The Kitt Peak National Observatory on a clear, starry night

It’s a rare sight — if a person can even see it. That’s why the Arizona Technology Council is interested in helping preserve a commodity that literally disappears at the flip of a switch: darkness.

The dark skies over the state were an early gateway for the state’s movement into science and technology circles. Astronomers and others have turned to Arizona’s dark sky corridor to observe the night sky for research, stargazing, GPS monitoring and defense purposes, Jeffrey Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, has said. The international astronomy community has come to our state for celestial activities at such locales as Lowell Observatory — remember Pluto? — and Kitt Peak west of Tucson.

Don’t forget eastern Arizona’s Mount Graham, home of the world’s largest optical telescope. Such interest contributes to Tucson being home of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the nation’s research and development center for ground-based nighttime astronomy. The only other state that comes closest to earning such a level of interest in its star-filled skies is Hawaii.

According to the group Astronomy, Planetary and Space Science (APSS), such research by 2008 was reported to have an economic return of nearly $250 million annually in Arizona while the infrastructure to support the research was valued at more than $1 billion.

However, as the state grows, so has light pollution. To counter the influx, Flagstaff, Tucson and other communities have adopted lighting ordinances. Lighting codes mandate shielded fixtures that direct light to a target, which is usually the ground. Phoenix is wrestling with this issue as newly installed LED street lights are far brighter than the softer yellow lights they are replacing. While LED is cheaper to operate, it chips away at the darkness in bigger chunks.

Protecting the dark skies definitely is a balancing act of determining what best serves Arizona’s interests: economic development or public safety. Fortunately for all parties, there is a cooperative spirit that exists here. That was witnessed in 2012 when astronomers and billboard companies negotiated a pact that created a boundary for LED billboards and the nit level, or visible-light intensity, at which they could be lit.

The issue returned in the recent session of the Legislature, this time to increase the previously approved area for billboards to include Mohave County. While negotiations eventually led to limiting the expansion to the western half of the county and restricting all future billboards to 200 nits — the intensity of a flat-screen desktop monitor — a final decision was sidetracked by budget discussions.

You can bet the Council, as it had been in the last session, will be back at the Legislature next year to help APSS and all interested parties craft a measure that benefits the state. After all, it’s not an issue of who’s right and who’s wrong but rather finding the right balance. Besides the impact on astronomical pursuits, a change in the dark skies also can affect the ecosystem, waste energy and even disrupt circadian rhythms. The intention of advertisers to help keep our economic engines humming along also is part of the equation.

It’s worth noting interest in Arizona’s dark skies goes beyond just the science and business communities. Grand Canyon National Park has been designated a provisional International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association and the National Park Service. The label is granted to legally protected parks accessible to the public that have exceptional starry night views. There seems to be plenty of company for the enlightened.

Speak Your Mind

In Business Dailies

Sign up for a complimentary year of In Business Dailies with a bonus Digital Subscription of In Business Magazine delivered to your inbox each month!

  • Get the day’s Top Stories
  • Relevant In-depth Articles
  • Daily Offers
  • Coming Events