By Kelli Housley, Valles Caldera National Preserve
With contributions from Monique Schoustra and Starr Woods
Humans and animals have always relied on the stars for seasonal awareness, navigation, and understanding. But increases in artificial lighting and light pollution cost us our connection to the past and produce devastating effects on our own health and our environment.
Animals have evolved to use natural cycles of day and night for migration, mating, pollination, and more. But countless species have been adversely affected because of the increase in lighting and light pollution over the years. Artificial light and skyglow have caused disruptions to many species’ natural cycle of life, contributing to reductions in population and even extinction.
Ancient cultures populated the night sky with fanciful imaginary creatures, and told their stories so frequently and so vividly that the stars were named for specific parts of those creatures’ bodies.
We don’t know the stars as well as our ancestors did. We keep ourselves busy after dark; artificial light and other conveniences of our age have meant that most of us only know a few of the brightest stars. Those who live in cities see them rarely.
A deep connection with nature is lost when we lose the sight of the stars, those celestial beacons that have been with us since the dawn of our species, that have guided our migrations and explorations, that have inspired our deepest meditations.
Yet we do need artificial light to guide us and to keep us safe during our nighttime activities.
Unfortunately, much of the light we generate is wasted or ill-used. In fact, much of the light that is intended to keep us safe does the opposite. Bright floodlights shine in our eyes, blinding and distracting us from things we need to pay attention to. Lights that are too bright make dark shadows that hide hazards. Ill-positioned and unshielded lights shine into our bedrooms and disturb our sleep. Poorly shielded lights send light up and out into space, where it does no good. We waste money and energy by sending light where it’s not needed.
This is light pollution.
Light that leaks up into the sky, either directed upward or reflected from surfaces, causes skyglow that washes out the brilliance of the stars. Curbing light pollution to restore our night skies does not mean eliminating all artificial light. But when we learn to distinguish good lighting from bad, we will still enjoy night life and preserve our view of the stars.
Valles Caldera National Preserve has recently achieved International Dark Sky Park status, and Bandelier National Monument has submitted an application for that status. The National Park Service (NPS) invites you to drive up to the Caldera some evening when the moon is below the horizon, and discover anew the brilliance of the stars. It’s not perfect; you will see skyglow from Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. These parks inspire us to reduce light pollution from our cities and improve the stunning dark skies of the Jemez Mountains.
These units of the NPS have joined with PEEC and other regional entities to form the Jemez Mountains Night Sky Coalition (JMNSC), whose aim is to promote the preservation of our spectacular night skies. The JMNSC has prepared a draft of a new lighting ordinance for Los Alamos County to replace the one in the County Charter that was written in the early 2000s when lighting technology was very different from today. This draft is being considered for inclusion in the ongoing development code update.
If Los Alamos adopts a strong new lighting ordinance, we could apply for status as an International Dark Sky Community, following the example of cities like Flagstaff, Sedona, and Moab. Together with Valles Caldera and Bandelier, our area might become a destination for astrotourism: a growing vacation target for people interested in viewing or photographing the night sky and night-time scenery.
This article is the first in a series planned by the JMNSC to celebrate International Dark Sky Week (April 5-12) and Earth Day (April 22). Successive articles will cover environmental and health effects of poor outdoor lighting, principles of good lighting, technical specifications for good lighting, and where to find good light fixtures for homes and businesses.
Submit your photos for our May photo contest by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org. May’s theme is “Migratory Birds.” Submissions for next month’s contest are due on Friday, April 30. We’d love to see your best shots of migratory birds in Northern New Mexico.
The Los Alamos Nature Center will re-open on Monday, April 12! Stop by to view the finalists and vote for the winner of our April contest. This month’s theme is “Wildflowers.”
If you submit photos for a future month in advance, please include the month in the subject line.
PEEC’s Monthly Photo Contest
Each month, the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) runs a photo contest at the Los Alamos County Nature Center. Normally, five photos are continuously displayed in the nature center, where visitors can view them and then vote for their favorite photo by putting money into one (or more) of five labeled canisters below the display. The canister with the largest amount of money wins the contest for that month. Due to COVID-19 and the nature center’s closure, the photo contest is being conducted virtually.
Bandelier National Monument and PEEC have been partnering for almost 20 years to bring students on a field trip to a scientific bird-banding site at Bandelier. This year, because of the pandemic, we had to bring bird banding to the students via a virtual field trip experience.
In both the virtual and in-person bird-banding programs, students gain insight into the processes of field science and learn about a key method of collecting data for understanding our local and migratory bird populations.
This year, 5th-grader Ana Saenz took things a step further by analyzing a subset of Bandelier’s bird-banding data for her science fair project:
“My friends and I started a nature club at our school, Chamisa Elementary. One day, Zoë Moffett, who was a bird bander at Bandelier National Monument, talked to the club about bird banding. I had first seen Zoë at the virtual owl talk she gave for PEEC,” Ana says. “I was trying to think of a science fair project then, so I decided to ask her if I could borrow some data about banding, and she agreed to give me the masses of the Audubon’s and Wilson’s Warblers that they had tagged since 2014.”
Click through the slides below to see Ana’s project!
Show your appreciation for your special someone this year with a Wild Love valentine! Download and print PEEC’s custom-made valentines, hinting at fun facts about the mating and dating stories of local critters. Note that some of our special valentines are more adult-themed than others! View the PDF and print your own sheet here.
Plus, be sure to join us on Tuesday, February 9 at 7 PM for a special Wild Love edition of our monthly virtual Trivia Tuesdays. This month’s game will be all about the love lives of animals near and far. If you study our printable valentines closely, you may just have an advantage for this program! Learn more and register here.
If you’re looking for a Valentine’s Day gift, visit PEEC’s online gift shop for some cute, sustainably made stuffed animals. All plushes will be 10% off from February 10th – 14th in PEEC’s online gift shop. Just use code LOVEBIRDS at checkout. View our selection of plush animals here.