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March 27, 2009

Lights out Saturday night!

Remember when you could see stars? Have your kids ever seen the Milky Way? For some reason we have, as a society, decided we need to keep the bulbs burning in our stores and offices when they're empty, and illuminate things that don't really need to be seen at night - like tall buildings. Too many of our outdoor lights waste energy lighting up dust in the air and the underside Skyglow/International Dark Sky Associationof the clouds.

That's what causes the skyglow captured in the photo at left, andInternational Dark Sky Association erases the stars. It is costing us billions in wasted energy, contributing to climate change and divorcing us from our heritage in the night sky (right).

For one hour beginning at 8:30 local time Saturday night, from Baltimore's City Hall to the Pyramids of Egypt, the lights will go out in a global expression of concern for our planet.

"Not only does it help reduce carbon emissions, but [it] encourages citizens to reflect on ways they can help save on energy costs and make Baltimore and their environment even greener," said Khalil Zaied, head of Baltimore's Bureau of General Services.

In addition to City Hall, the lights will go out for an hour downtown at the city's Abel Wolman Municipal Building, the MECU Building, the Charles Benton Building, the People's Court, the War Memorial Building and Fire Department Headquarters.

The global event is called Earth Hour, and it's being organized by the World Wildlife Fund. This will be the third year of its observance, and it continues to grow. This year, 2,400 cities in 82 countries are participating, up from 400 cities in 35 countries last year. In addition to Baltimore, U.S. cities taking part include Washington DC, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York City and Nashville, Tenn.

Also going dark for an hour will be the Acropolis in Athens, Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building in New York, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. In London, the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus will go out for an hour, and Marriott Hotels around the world will also switch off their outdoor lights.

Of course, everyone is invited to take part, switching off their porch lights and other unneeded illumination for an hour wherever they are. But one hour of darkness at a relative handful of locations won't be much more than a symbolic vote in favor of more sensible energy use and more rational illumination ordinances.

What the Dark Sky movement has been about for many years has been a campaign to educate the public and their policy makers about the needless waste of energy for illumination, which has the added effect of erasing the night sky by allowing unnecessary light to shine sideways, or up into the sky where it's not needed.

Dark sky advocates agree that some nighttime illumination is needed for safety and security. But they argue that too much of that lighting is badly designed, shining on things that don't need to be illuminated, instead of being concentrated on the things that do.

Wasted light/energyFor example, light from a streetlight that beams into your upstairs bedroom window is not helping anyone see the street (left). That light isGood lighting/International Dark Sky Association wasted and intrusive. Such lights should be aimed and shielded (right) so that the light goes only where it's needed. That would not only prevent light intrusion into your bedroom; the proper engineering of the light fixture would also require less energy, since less light would be needed to do the job. 

In Baltimore County, the owners of Bengies Drive-In Theater argue that unnecessary light intrusion from a neighboring business is causing problems for their movie-going customers. Better lighting design could have avoided the problems and saved money and energy.

Likewise, a spotlight shining onto a billboard from below the sign sends much of its light into space, lighting up the bellies of migrating birds and washing out the night sky. Mount that light on the top of the billboard, and shine it down onto the ad only, and you have a cheaper, more sensible plan.

Many cities have enacted good, strong outdoor lighting ordinances, some with the help of the International Dark Sky Association. What's needed is for more local governments to do the same, and for all those who enforce these ordinances to do their jobs.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:02 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Events


My kids have seen the Milky Way but only because we're campers and I made it a point to show it to them. I doubt many young people around here have ever seen it.

Hello Mr. Roylance, Pete Strasser of IDA here. Thank you for writing such a well crafted article describing our concerns and objectives. I will spend much of the next week clarifying our position that our name says dark sky, not dark ground, because of poorly written columns not researching what we advocate. We have already dealt with the likes of us claiming we want to turn of all the lights and let criminals run rampant and are happy to bring back the dark ages. What you have written is a breath of fresh air, and should be the template for all subsequent articles.

Best regards, Pete

Pete Strasser
Managing Director IDA

I enjoy the stars as much as the next person, but I will be sure to turn every light in the house on during that time, including the closet lights, basement lights, front and back porches, yard lights, etc. I will also start every vehicle I own and let them idle for that hour with their headlights on.

Earth Hour is a load of...well you know.

Notice of the event was broadcast via e-mail at my place of employment yesterday. The pitch was you can vote for the Earth or you can vote for global warming. LOL!

Nevertheless...I do favor better control over the spillage of outside lighting. There's no reason my neighbor/s flood light has to pollute my yard or parking lot lights can/t be better baffled to direct it where it/s needed.

I am interested and plan to do the lights out. Heard about it first on CNN. I hate to mention this but would you say it leans more in direction of one political party?

FR: Who cares? I think it leans in the direction of environmental conservation. I think that is, or should be, of concern to everyone who breathes and drinks water.

I think it is great we arehaving this awareness hour. We are not doing enough. I recently purchased a used book about going green. It is 20 years old and still, it seems as if it was just printed because everything is just the same as it was 20 years ago. So we need to speed this up if we want future generations to live on earth.

Folks, This WWF Earth Hour has for over 2 years now tried to raise an awareness of the "hidden" harm created by the modern 24 hour day. You can learn more by clicking on the web site attached to my name. This "harm" includes your health and your "pocket book", as well as the natural environment. It is not just nerd astronomers affected - it is everything?

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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff

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