Our dark skies: The stars at night

Some parts of the southwest desert are restless, whether it is Las Vegas with its blinding neon signs shining all night or Tucson with its Circle K’s and 24-hour McDonalds illuminated until dawn cracks.

But the old west town of Tombstone goes to sleep early. When the lights go out and the 1,000-something residents get tucked in, something else takes over the street lights and embroiders the sky: the stars.

When the darkness settles, it’s almost like back in the day when cowboys relied on the stars to navigate them through the night.

“The night sky in Tombstone, because of all the ordinances and all that kind of stuff, is absolutely glorious,” said Michael Rice from the O.K. Corral on Allen Street. “You don’t have the big industries all around. You see some glow of the light from Sierra Vista but otherwise, you look up in the sky and it is just chock full of stars.”

Tombstone has a light pollution code, which “mitigates the total light output put out by any property, building or project,” according to Michael McMillan, the city’s building inspector. The code requires outdoor light installations to have shielding and filtration systems.

“It’s part of a conglomerate of Pima and Cochise counties getting together to control the amount of light output of populated cities to help get the light pollution level down for all the observatories,” McMillan said.

There is a strong astronomical research presence in Arizona, said Scott Kardel, managing director of the International Dark-Sky Association. Arizona is home to 14 major observatories, including the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson and the Northern Arizona University Campus Observatory in Flagstaff, and countless astronomy clubs.

“The protection of dark skies is really important for that,” Kardel said.

He also said there are other consequences of poor lighting.

“Those include energy waste; there’s certainly an impact on human activities and safety and good vision, impacts on the natural world and even on human health,” he said.

Light installed by people “tends to go everywhere rather than where it’s needed,” he added.

“There’s no reason for it to shine into the sky or someone else’s bedroom window or into the eyes of a motorist,” he said. “If you concentrate the light where it’s actually needed, you don’t have to use much.”

The output of outdoor lights is often excessive, he said. Appropriate uses can mean shielding the bulbs to minimize the output or something as simple as pointing the light in the right direction.

Kardel said the International Dark-Sky Association has a program in which cities, communities or parks can apply for a certification to become a “dark sky community.” The only city in Arizona to be certified through this program is Flagstaff.

The benefits of the program include better lighting for navigation at night, energy savings and the ability to see the stars, he said. Beyond that, the status makes a community more attractive to tourists who are looking to do stargazing.

Kardel, who has not reviewed the Tombstone light pollution code, said if there is community effort to minimize light pollution and an effective light ordinance, a town that shuts its lights off early, such as Tombstone may “well be on their way” to applying for the certification.

Tombstone has another advantage in minimizing light pollution to other more populated cities in Arizona: Shops around town go to sleep early.

“Most shops are closed by five and most people are in bed by 9 or 10 in the evening,” Rice said. “There’s not a huge night life in Tombstone. We don’t have 24-hour business except for the Circle K, but they don’t have enough lights on the Circle K to blind the horizons.”

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