Note: This article was authored by Brian Rich, ICL’s Central Idaho intern for the summer.
Idaho remains one of the last great refuges for darkness throughout the continental U.S., according to a recent report by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. An estimated 80% of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way at all due to light pollution at night. CIRES’ study compiled data on the extent of light pollution throughout the world. This map details the extent of light pollution throughout the country, showing the extent to which artificial light infiltrates our night sky.
A clear night sky has effects on the natural world beyond simple aesthetics. Millions of nocturnal creatures rely on darkness in order to survive, and as light encroaches on their habitat, it drastically disrupts their lives. Similarly, diurnal creatures rely on darkness for sleep and rest. As the darkness is pushed back across the world, millions of animals are seeing their habitat encroached upon.
However, the International Dark Sky Association is working to raise awareness of the importance of darkness in communities across the globe. Over the past fifteen years, the IDSA has recognized towns and cities for their work in restoring the night. Beginning with Flagstaff, Arizona in 2001, the IDSA has certified dark sky communities in the U.S., Canada, and Scotland for their commitment to preserving the night.
Dark sky communities are noted by their efforts to minimize the amount of unnecessary light and light pollution. Here in Idaho, several communities have independently enacted dark sky ordinances with a similar goal in mind. The cities of Ketchum, Hailey, and Sun Valley are located on the edge of some of the darkest sky in Idaho due to their proximity to federal wilderness areas. In 1999, 2002, and 2004, respectively, the three communities passed ordinances to reduce light pollution.
The ordinances sought to reduce excess artificial light when possible and to eliminate upward facing lights that cast a glare on the night sky. In 2010, all of Blaine County adopted Ordinance 2010-05, which put dark sky practices into effect for the whole county. In doing so, the county hoped to preserve not only the aesthetic qualities of the night sky, but critical ecological conditions as well.
Although it gets dark very late here in Central Idaho, once the sun finally goes down make sure you go outside and see what the night has to offer. The sky here is clear and dark, free of the dim haze that envelops much of the country. While a truly dark sky may be difficult to achieve in metropolitan areas, in a state like Idaho it is a very real possibility.
While we may value the long days of summer, the darkness of night helps Idaho retain its wild character. The next time you find yourself out after dark, make sure you take time to stop and look up.