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Mesa Verde National Park looking for dark sky designation

Group says light pollution is costly, harmful to human and animal health
Sean Duffy demonstrates the laser pointer he uses as part of the Mesa Verde National Park night programs. The park is applying for a dark sky status.

Mesa Verde National Park may become an International Dark Sky Park in the coming year.

The Mesa Verde Museum Association has been working on its application to receive the designation since 2015, and it plans to submit its application this month, according to David Quinn, sales manager with the museum association, the nonprofit partner that operates the park’s bookstore and assists with fundraising efforts.

The designation would support night sky programs at the park and improve visitors’ experiences, the applicants say – and bring Mesa Verde into the international movement to curb light pollution.

“It is important,” Quinn said. “It is a pollution like any other pollution.”

The idea of seeking a dark sky designation first came up after Quinn attended a biannual meeting of the Peaks, Plateaus, and Canyons Association in October 2015. A few other sites represented – including Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks – were in the process of applying for the designation at the time.

“I felt like Mesa Verde National Park had some tremendous night skies as well,” Quinn said. “Especially since I lived in the park at that time.”

He was given the go-ahead to begin work on the application, and assumed the role of liaison between Mesa Verde National Park and the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), which operates the International Dark Sky Places Program.

The program was founded in 2001 and aims to encourage communities to protect dark sites, offering six types of designations: International Dark Sky Communities, International Dark Sky Parks, International Dark Sky Reserves, International Dark Sky Sanctuaries, Urban Night Sky Places and Dark Sky Friendly Developments of Distinction.

Norwood was recently designated as a Dark Sky Community, along with other locations including Flagstaff and Westcliffe, Colorado.

According to the IDA website, for a park to be eligible, “The core area must provide an exceptional dark sky resource, relative to the communities and cities that surround it, where the night sky brightness is routinely equal to or darker than 21.2 magnitudes per square arc second.”

A “magnitude per square arc second” is a measure of what magnitude of brightness is spread over 1 square arc second of the sky, a geometrical measurement. For context, a Sky Quality Meter has a range of 7 mpsas to 23 mpsas, with 7 as the brightest and 23 as the darkest.

IDA argues that not only does light pollution prevent people from seeing the night sky, but it’s harmful to human and animal health, and is wasteful.

For humans, some artificial light can be harmful to the skin and may disrupt circadian rhythms, according to IDA. Ecologically, nighttime lights can confuse nocturnal animals’ cycles by “turning night into day,” draw baby sea turtles away from the ocean and impact bird migrations.

Nighttime lights can be wasteful, too. According to IDA, which based its calculations on 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Energy, 13% of residential electricity used in the U.S. is for outdoor lighting, and at least 30% of all outdoor lighting is wasted by lights that aren’t shielded or are poorly aimed – at a cost of about $3 billion per year.

And less tangibly, light pollution taints the grandeur of being able to see the night sky in all its glory.

The Milky Way Galaxy above Mesa Verde National Park, during a lecture and workshop held on shooting the night sky in September 2017.

“Over 80% of today’s population does not see or has not seen the night sky constellations, the Milky Way, nothing,” Quinn said. “There’s way too much light.”

IDA encourages people to limit outdoor lighting usage, install motion detector lights and timers if safety is a concern, appropriately shield outdoor lights, and keep blinds drawn so light remains inside.

To apply for the designation, the Mesa Verde Museum Association had to acquire a Sky Quality Meter for a series of measurements, including for surrounding communities visible at the park, all the way down to Farmington and Aztec. They also had to conduct an inventory of all the outside lighting within the park for being dark sky compliant.

The museum association has received letters of support from Mancos and, recently, the city of Cortez. Showing community support for the designation is a big component of the application, since one of the main purposes of the program is to encourage surrounding areas to also work to mitigate light pollution.

“Part of the goal is to work with surrounding communities, to become more aware of the loss of night, light pollution, the effects it has, and how our night skies are actually a dwindling natural resource that needs protection and preservation, like any other natural resource,” Quinn said.

The Cortez letter was unanimously approved by the City Council on Dec. 10.

“It is important to preserve our natural resources including a clear night sky, free from artificial light pollution,” the letter reads. “The work that has gone towards qualifying for this designation enhances the tourist experience at Mesa Verde National Park.”

This article was updated Jan. 4 to correct the official title of the Mesa Verde Museum Association in the second paragraph.


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