DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif.
High atop Dante’s View, overlooking sheets of salt flats and ribbons of sand dunes, night watcher Dan Duriscoe shone a laser beam at the North Star and steadied his digital camera at the starry heavens.
Click. The sky looked dark.
Mr. Duriscoe panned the camera toward the light factory of Las Vegas, 85 miles away but peeking out like a white halo above the mountains in the eastern horizon.
Click. The sky was on fire.
“You can see the Luxor vertical beam,” Mr. Duriscoe said, pointing to a time-exposure shot on his camera-connected laptop showing the famous searchlight of the Vegas Strip’s pyramid-shaped hotel. “That’s the brightest thing out there.”
Acclaimed for its ink-black skies, Death Valley, the hottest place in North America, also ranks among the nation’s unspoiled stargazing spots. But the vista has grown blurry in recent years.
The glitzy neon glow from Las Vegas and its burgeoning bedroom communities is stealing stars from the park’s eastern fringe. New research reveals that light pollution from Vegas increased 61 percent between 2001 and 2007, making it appear brighter than the planet Venus on clear nights as seen from Dante’s View.
Mr. Duriscoe, a soft-spoken, mustachioed physical scientist with the National Park Service, is part of a roving federal team of night owls whose job is to gaze up at the sky and monitor for light pollution in national parks.
“What is alarming to me is, what’s going to happen three or four generations from now if this growth of outdoor lights continues?” he asked.
Amid such concerns, Death Valley, the largest national park in the lower 48, has set an ambitious goal: It wants to be the first official dark-sky national park.
Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been enthralled by the night sky’s romantic mystique. Early seafarers relied on stars to steer their ships. Farmers looked toward the night sky for clues on when to plant and harvest crops. Ancient cultures spun mythologies from staring at the cosmos.
Civilization is also the chief reason why the night sky is vanishing in many corners. As the world grows, so do the number of lampposts sprouting like trees in sprawling subdivisions. Pass by Anywhere, USA, and chances are you will see lighted shopping strips, twinkling auto malls and flashy billboards.
It’s estimated that about one-fifth of the world’s population and more than two-thirds in the United States cannot see the Milky Way from their backyards.
Further, studies have shown that exposure to artificial lights can interrupt animals’ biological clocks and disrupt ecosystems. Migratory birds have been known to be confused by blinding lights on skyscrapers and fly smack into them. Last year, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization listed the graveyard shift, when workers toil under artificial lights, as a probable carcinogen.
The International Dark-Sky Association, an Arizona-based nonprofit whose slogan is “Carpe Noctem,” has noticed an increased awareness about the perils of light pollution but acknowledges there’s a limit to promoting dark skies.
“I don’t think you can get Paris to turn off the Eiffel Tower or persuade Times Square to turn off all of its lights,” said Pete Strasser, the association’s managing director.
The same probably could be said for Las Vegas, the sparkly desert playground where neon signs blend into the natural landscape.
“It’s part of the whole ambience. It’s the selling point of Las Vegas,” said Barbara Ginoulias, director of comprehensive planning for Clark County, Nev., where Vegas is located. Still, she added, “We’re certainly cognizant of light pollution, and we try to address it in the best way.”
Miss Ginoulias’ department oversees unincorporated parts of Clark County, which are required to shield outdoor lights or cast the light downward. Next month, the county commission will consider an ordinance that would set lighting standards on digital billboards on Interstate 15, which runs along the Vegas Strip.
As for the main drag, Las Vegas Boulevard, Miss Ginoulias said signs are reviewed case by case. Newer signs tend to be less flashy or not have the glaring white background, she said.
With no control over the Vegas glow, park rangers at Death Valley are looking inward to fix the light problem at home as they pursue their goal of becoming the first dark-sky national park.
To gain that distinction, the park must shield or change out two-thirds of its existing outdoor light fixtures. Death Valley has about 700 lights in its 3.3 million acres, including parking-lot light poles, floodlights, fluorescent tubes and egress lights next to doors. Just about 200 lights meet the sky-friendly standard.
At the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, located 190 feet below sea level, the pedestrian walkway leading to the front entrance is lined with overhead rows of fluorescent tubes under a canopy. From Dante’s View at night, the visitors center appears as dancing white and blue dots.
“This is a really bright spot in the park,” said Terry Baldino, chief of interpretation at Death Valley. “All the campgrounds have to share their night sky with the lights here. If we can reduce that, then we’re going to improve their night stay.”
The park has replaced some fixtures with tin-can-shaped designs that focus light onto the ground instead of sideways or upward. Rangers also are debating whether to turn off outdoor lights in some cases.
“We’re doing little by little,” Mr. Baldino said.
So far, Utah’s Gold Tier Natural Bridges National Monument and Pennsylvania’s Cherry Springs State Park are the only two parks certified by the International Dark-Sky Association as dark-sky enclaves. This fall, the group gave a tentative OK to the Geauga Park District’s Observatory Park 40 miles east of Cleveland for its work to preserve darkness over the observatory and nearby parkland.
Despite Death Valley’s lighting challenges, city dwellers from all over still flock to take in the view.
On a recent December evening, a naturalist couple from northern Los Angeles admired the star-studded sky from Zabriskie Point, a popular lookout just south of the visitors center.
“You don’t see this in L.A.,” said Karen Zimmerman, 49, who works at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. “You forget how many stars there are.”