Skyward light, wayward light

silhouette of person under starry sky

This is welcome news:

… even if it’s curious that three of the four officially stated reasons for designating this ‘dark sky reserve’ aren’t directly related to the telescopes, and that telescopes had to come up in the area for the local government, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) and whoever else to acknowledge that it deserved to have dark skies. I believe that ‘doing’ astronomy with telescopes shouldn’t be a prerequisite to “promoting livelihoods through … astro-tourism” and “spreading awareness and education about astronomy”. And that’s why I wonder if there there are other sites in the country that are favourable to a popular science-driven activity, where the locals can be taught to guide tourists to pleasurably perform that activity, but which hasn’t been done because scientists aren’t there doing it themselves.

But frankly, the government should declare as much of the country a dark-sky reserve as possible*, in consultation with local stakeholders – or at least a new kind of ‘reserve’ where, say, light, noise and other neglected forms of pollution are limited to a greater degree than is common by law and to encourage sustainability along these axes as well. This is in opposition to dealing with these irritants in piecemeal or ad hoc fashion, where each type of pollution is addressed in isolation (even when they have common sources, like factories), and – to a lesser extent – not just because scientists require certain conditions for their work.

(* I’m obviously cynical about instituting large-scale behavioural change that’d preclude the need for such reserves.)

Case in point: the new Hanle dark-sky reserve hasn’t been designated as such under law but through an MoU between the UT of Ladakh, the IIA and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, with a commitment to fulfilling requirements defined by the International Dark Sky Association , based in the US. Fortunately – but sadly, considering we had to wait for an extraneous prompt – one of the association’s requirements is “current/planned legislation to protect the area”.

Such ‘reserves’ also don’t have to be setup at the expense of development principally because many of the ways to reduce light (and noise) pollution can do so without coming in the way, of development as well as our right as citizens to enjoy public spaces in all the ways in which we’re entitled. (I’m asking for ‘less’ knowing the Indian government’s well-known reluctance to take radical steps to protect natural resources, but we’re also at a point from the PoV of the climate crisis where every gain is good gain. I’m open to being persuaded otherwise, however.)

One of the simplest ways is in fact to have no public lighting installation that casts light upward, into the sky, but keeps it all facing down. Doing this will subtract the installation’s contribution to light pollution, improve energy-use efficiency by not ‘wasting’ any light thrown upwards and reduce the power consumed by limiting it to that required to illuminate only what needs to be illuminated, together with surfaces that limit the amount of light scattered upward.

Other similarly simple ways include turning off all lights when you have no need for them (such as when you leave the room), to prefer energy-efficient lighting solutions and to actively limit the use of decorative lighting – but the ‘turn the lamps downward’ bit is both sensible and surprising in its general non-achievement. Hanle of course will be subject to more stringent restrictions, including requiring people to keep the colour temperature under 3,000 kelvin and the light flux of unshielded lamps to 500 lumen. Here’s an example of the difference to be made:

That’s a (visibly) necessary extremum, in a manner of speaking – to maintain suitable viewing conditions for the ground-based telescopes in the area. On the other hand, India’s (and the UAE’s for that matter, since I was there recently) industrialisation and urbanisation are creating an unnecessary extremum on the other hand, giving seemingly trivial concerns like light pollution the slip. A 2016 study found that less than 10% of India is exposed to “very high nighttime light intensities with no dark adaption for human eyes” – but also that around 80% of the population is exposed to between “from 1 to 8% above the natural light” to complete lack of access to “true night because it is masked by an artificial twilight”.

The tragedy, if we can call it that, is exacerbated when even trivial fixes aren’t implemented properly. Or is it when an industrialist might look at this chart and think, “We’ve still got a lot of white to go”?