Celebrating Dark Skies

Posted Dec. 21, 2008, at 6:44 p.m.

Because we are at the time of year when daylight is at its shortest — the sun sets before 4 p.m. — it’s fitting to turn attention to the night sky. While many feel like they have gradually crawled into a tunnel over the last two months, and take comfort in the fact that beginning today, daylight starts growing longer, there is something about the long, dark, winter night that is worth celebrating.

Much of midcoast, central, eastern and northern Maine enjoys views of the night sky that would make a planetarium envious. When the air temperature descends into the single digits, humidity all but disappears, making for especially crisp displays of the stars, planets and galaxies. The Milky Way is an especially beautiful sight, appearing as a white smudge running nearly vertical from close to the horizon, or tipped like a Frisbee on edge, diagonal to the Earth, depending on what time of night it is seen.

The Milky Way is also an especially rare sight on the East Coast. Elsewhere, street and highway lights, and lights blazing away in the empty parking lots of office parks and grocery and department stores, drown it out.

Worrying about light pollution might seem about as silly as worrying about an asteroid striking Earth, but given our heightened awareness of the real cost of wasted energy, it is worth addressing. And the cosmic considerations of preserving the night sky should not be dismissed. The primal awe and profound humility we feel before the nightly reminder of our place in a vast, mysterious universe should be understood as valuable, if not quantifiable.

On Mount Desert Island, where the open ocean to the south affords incredible access to the night sky, the town of Bar Harbor recently approved a “dark sky” ordinance that aims to limit the effect of electric light on the night sky. The new ordinance was not embraced by all, but it is not overly onerous. It requires new exterior lighting to include shields so the light is directed down, where it is needed. Some studies have shown that excessive exterior lighting is not especially effective as a crime prevention method. (Consider the Maine homes that have a street light affixed to the garage, while the front door is never locked.)

Some dark-sky boosters argue that stars are a tourist draw. Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, told the Boston Globe that a recent National Geographic article listed Bar Harbor as one of four of the best places to see stars in the U.S. If our stars are marketable, that’s a bonus.

In the meantime, let us Mainers take in one of the splendors of our backyards. On the drive home, or while walking the dog tonight, take a moment to contemplate the sky.

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