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Death Valley may become U.S.’ first ‘dark sky’ park

Vegas be damned! Death Valley seeks to be home to U.S.’ first dark-sky park

The lights of Las Vegas illuminate the night sky behind scientist Dan Duriscoe, whose photographs are helping guide Death Valley National Park as it seeks to become a bright spot in the dark-skies movement.

The lights of Las Vegas illuminate the night sky behind scientist Dan Duriscoe, whose photographs are helping guide Death Valley National Park as it seeks to become a bright spot in the dark-skies movement.

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 looks dark.

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 is on fire.

“You can see the Luxor vertical beam,” said Duriscoe, pointing to a time-exposure shot on his camera-connected laptop showing the Vegas Strip pyramid-shaped hotel’s famous searchlight. “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 in recent years has grown blurry.

The glitzy neon glow from Las Vegas and its burgeoning bedroom communities is stealing stars from the park’s eastern fringe. New research reveals 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.

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.

Vanishing Milky Way

It’s estimated 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 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, where 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 acknowledged 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 could probably be said for Las Vegas, the sparkly desert playground where neon signs blend into the natural landscape.

“It’s part of the whole ambiance. 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.”

Park’s lights a problem, too

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, flood lights and egress lights next to doors. Only 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 visitor center appears as 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.”

The park has replaced some fixtures with tin can-shaped designs that focus light onto the ground instead of sideways or upward. Rangers are also debating whether to turn off some outdoor lights.

“We’re doing little by little,” said Baldino.

Lights cut star views in half

At Dante’s View, a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the glimmering valley floor, Duriscoe is working his second night taking sky brightness readings. The crescent moon, which formed a triangle with Jupiter and Venus earlier in the night, has dropped below the horizon.

Skywatchers can theoretically see some 6,000 stars in the blackest and pristine skies of Death Valley. With light pollution from Vegas, scientists estimate about 2,500 stars are visible from Dante’s View.

Advances in technology have enabled people to see the cosmos like never before. Take the Hubble Space Telescope, which has beamed stunning images of exotic galaxies to people’s computers. But Duriscoe noted that these images are just not the same as being out under the sky.

Sitting on the ledge of Dante’s View, his legs stretched out and his back toward Vegas, Duriscoe pondered the shrinking sky.

“This is the real universe,” he said.

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