Participants in York College Professor Tim Paglione’s sky observation program gaze skyward.
As a group of about 20 people shuffled onto the fourth floor terrace of the York College H-wing, Professor Tim Paglione shielded his eyes and looked straight up.
“There!” he said, and everyone craned their heads back.
With squinted eyes – and hoodies pulled over their heads – the group was looking at one of the brightest stars in the night sky, Vega.
Once a month, Paglione, an astrophysicist who is also the chair of the Earth and Physical Sciences Department, puts on an open sky observation night for the community and college students fascinated in the cosmos.
At a session this past summer, everyone expected to see the “summer triangle,” a constellation that during the early night-time hours of summer draws an imaginary triangle directly above using the three brightest stars from three separate constellations: Altair from the constellation Aquila; Cygnus from Deneb; and Vega from Lyra.
Though sometimes the sky’s conditions can be dubious (mostly because of cloud cover), tonight the sky’s haze is matched with one problem that will just never go away: the lights.
“Gertz is off tonight,” Paglione said and pointed to the darkened Gertz Plaza Mall signage. “That’s a blessing.”
“Light pollution is the easiest pollution to fix, it’s not like you have to wait centuries for it to leave the atmosphere,” Paglione said. “I calculated it, it takes a millisecond.”
New York is one of the few states in the nation that has no laws limiting light pollution. However, a bill was passed though the State Senate in June that would require facades on all lights to reduce glare and light pollution. It’s yet to be seen if the bill will be signed into law.
California, on the other hand, has some of the strongest laws and has recently emboldened their program in places like downtown Los Angeles and Oakland by changing the orange-hued sodium street lights (familiar to the ones that surround York College) to a brighter, more cost-efficient, LED light.
The switch between bulbs has the potential to reduce glare street lamps by 66 percent, according to research done by the Optical Society (OSA).
It also saves California over $5 million in electricity usage, according to the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting.
“Light pollution is the only form of pollution where you can save money by fixing it,” said Scott Kardel, acting executive director of the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). “We tend to think of air and water pollution as a thing. You can touch toxic water, for example. Light pollution is a bit more nebulous than that. You can’t hold or smell it, but you can see it, and you can make an instant difference in turning your lights off.”
But light is a finicky particle. You can direct light into a beam by, for example, fashioning a piece of paper into a cylinder around a flashlight, but light photons bouncing off the paper will create a slight halo effect at the opening, creating spillover.
“Light easily comes out in all angles, all you can do is put lenses in front of it,” said Dr. Robert Alfano, a distinguished professor of the physics department at CUNY’s City College of New York. “Light emits everywhere, so you have a glow. The light bulb is glowing. Even tungsten glows in all directions.”
The inevitable spillover, coupled with city lights from skyscrapers and billboards, wreak havoc on the ecological environment in many cities. Florida sea turtles that hatch at night have been most susceptible to light pollution.
“Instead of hatching and making their way to the water, they wander towards the lights, away from the water, and die,” said Paglione. “You know how the poster child of global warming is the polar bear? The poster child of light pollution is the sea turtle.”
In 1993, Florida enacted legislation to prohibit any illumination on or near beaches during nesting season in an effort to protect hatchlings, which are also on the endangered species list.
Unfortunately for Jamaica, despite its distance from the bright lights of Manhattan, is entangled in the most polluted region of the United States, according to The Royal Astronomical Society, which mapped out the level of brightness for each continent, showing that the spaces between Washington D.C. and Boston were the brightest.
Paglione contested the severity of light pollution in Jamaica, and that the neighborhood ranked low on the Bortle Scale, a nine-step checklist that anyone can check from their doorstep to see how dark their sky is.
“Hundreds of measurements get logged all over New York City each year, and it's bad,” he said. “But it's really good just 30 minutes away in some directions,” he said.
“The intangible factor is that for all of human history we’ve had the night sky,” said Kardel. “The stars have inspired countless people for cool things in regards to art and science and religion and philosophy. Now that we’re cut off from that, it’s hard to say what will happen.”