US National Park Service Battling Light Pollution, RVs Not Helping

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A recent piece at RVtravel tells us a little about the challenges the US National Park Service faces when trying to clean up light pollution. On the one hand, the agency has had a lot of success reducing light pollution from permanently-installed light sources. On the other hand, visiting light fixtures are a growing problem that threatens to undo the agency’s hard work.

“Night sky viewing is incredibly popular, and America’s national parks offer some of the best views of night skies,” Karen Trevino, the NPS’ chief steward of natural sounds and night skies told RVtravel. “Staring at the night sky with the Milky Way streaking overhead is a quintessential experience for many national park visitors. Even national parks near urban centers often serve as night sky sanctuaries for those who live in our most populated cities.”

What NPS Is Doing

The National Park Service’s websites give a lot of detail on what it is doing to not only preserve the current night skies in parks, but to also improve the situation.

First, the agency’s scientists measure the problem in a given park. This could be something as simple as determining what’s still visible in the night sky. For example, can people in the park still see the Milky Way, or does light pollution prevent that? How many stars are still visible? Answering these questions and others allow the scientists to compare the situation with other locations and measure progress over time as the agency strives to make improvements. More sophisticated methods involve the use of expensive light sensor equipment to get much more detailed data, or observations from satellites and/or the International Space Station to directly observe the light that goes up into the atmosphere.

Graphic by Larry Wilson, National Park Service (Public Domain)

Once they have a handle on how bad the problem is in a given park, they get to work implementing best practices to reduce light pollution. Much of this comes from using outdoor lighting more wisely. For one, not all areas need to be lit, so areas with outdoor lighting that don’t need it get turned off or the fixtures are removed. Timers, motion sensors, and other electronic interventions are used to keep lights on only when they’re needed. Light fixtures that direct light only downward help reduce “sky glow.” Finally, replacing bulbs with dimmer ones that emit warmer-colored light can still give people the light they need for safety while not destroying the view of the night sky.

This may sound simple, but the agency is doing all of this measuring and improvement in parks all across the United States. Much of the work happens within the parks themselves, by upgrading and improving lighting in the parks to help improve the situation. Sometimes it means improving light pollution near parks, which can be far more complicated because of all the different people involved. Outside of parks, reducing light pollution involves private property owners, as well as local and state governments.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the public perception that we need a lot more light than we do. Convincing people just to change a fixture or use dimmer bulbs can be a hard sell.

Here’s a video showing the importance of reducing light pollution and some of Grand Canyon National Park’s efforts in that area:

More Than An Aesthetic Problem

While the loss of the night sky alone should be a good enough reason to battle light pollution, it’s about a lot more than beauty.

One big problem with light pollution is that energy is being wasted. When poorly-designed fixtures are blasting photons into the sky instead of to places where humans actually need the light, the majority of the electrical energy going into the fixture is wasted. Add up the many billions of light bulbs humans use, and it adds up to a sizable contribution to problems like climate change, pollution from power plants, etc.

Human and animal health is another big problem. Bodies of all kinds evolved to live with light in the daytime and darkness at night. When there isn’t good darkness at night, humans and animals experience a variety of health problems, like increased cancer rates, heart problems, and obesity. Animals can even have problems obtaining food and water when there’s too much light at night, often because it reveals their position to predators or, conversely, keeps predators from being able to hide from prey.

Bottom line here: Everyone needs darkness at night. It’s not just a luxury or fun thing to see on vacations. You can read more about this in a previous CleanTechnica article here.

RV Design & Lack of Awareness Isn’t Helping

Going back to the RVtravel article, RVs are posing a challenge to the National Park Service’s efforts to reduce light pollution.

While LED lights have been great for reducing the environmental impact of artificial light at night (they use a lot less electricity), they’ve kind of backfired when it comes to light pollution. With older incandescent bulbs, I remember that my parents and grandparents were always encouraging me to minimize my use of RV lighting so that the battery would last or a generator could be run less. Now, one can leave the RV’s exterior lights on all night without depleting an RV’s deep-cycle batteries. In parks that offer “hook-ups” (electrical and water/sewer connections for RVs), there’s no incentive at all now to turn the lights off.

On top of that, RV lights are getting brighter and more numerous. Given the lower constraint on keeping the lights on, people have no reason to not turn on the extra lights and leave them on. On top of that, the fixtures are often not designed to minimize light pollution, so RV lighting is having an outsized impact on light pollution as people work to improve other lights in the national parks.

Worst, some RV owners are rigging up their RVs and sometimes the surrounding campsite area with even more aftermarket light. LED ropes, awning lights, and even Christmas-like lights can make for a festive mood on vacations, but emit a lot of light in all directions, sometimes bothering neighboring RV owners with flashing and pulsing light that can disturb sleep.

There’s no easy solution here. Part of the issue is going to be getting RV manufacturers to use dimmer bulbs in fixtures that keep the light only on places where it’s needed for safety (staircases, storage areas, under awnings, etc). That’s going to be a hard sell. It’s also going to require increased awareness on the part of RV owners that their lighting impacts the parks and their fellow campers. In some cases, this may require new park regulations that weren’t needed back when people were hesitant to run their lights.

Nobody likes having their fun spoiled, but this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed before it ruins the park experience for too many people and causes problems with nature.

Featured image: A screenshot of DarkSiteFinder’s light pollution map.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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