Students struggle to see stars
Few think of light pollution when they think of environmental problems, but for the astronomy department at Oberlin it is a serious issue.
Light pollution is defined by the International Dark Sky Association, an educational organization that promotes awareness about light pollution, as “lighting that shines up into the sky, reflects from a surface or that shines into an area where lighting is not wanted or needed.”
The construction of the Science Center significantly obscured the night sky. Observatory trainer Lee Lumpkin said, “We are seeing a fraction of what we saw four years ago.” In 2000 members of the astronomy department’s staff took steps, such as covering the skylights on Peters Hall observing deck, to increase visibility. Before this was done, Lumpkin said, “you could not see the Milky Way.” However, even with these modifications, light pollution around the observing deck has gradually gotten worse. “Now there is enough light pollution that it is now rare to see the Milky Way up on the deck,” said Lumpkin.
Oberlin College has not ignored light pollution. As Lumpkin notes, “the environment recommendations adopted by trustees fits in with lighting policy” since controlling light pollution means “energy efficiency and minimizing environmental impact.” Lumpkin said that “I gave a talk to the Building and Grounds people on light pollution about four years ago,” and since then there has been greater coordination on lighting. The lights at the Woodland Parking Lot are a product of this cooperation. In addition, lighting in front of the Mudd Library has been cut back, the security light between Peters and King Hall has been capped, putting more light on the ground, and new light bulbs on the Cox Building have been fitted with reflectors. Lumpkin believes that the creation of a comprehensive set of lighting guidelines would be the best way to address light pollution.
Light pollution is not an issue that is limited to Oberlin. Lumpkin pointed out that Ohio State University used to have a campus observatory but was forced to give up on campus observing due to light pollution.
The main cause of light pollution, Lumpkin says, is that it is usually not considered when lights are being installed. Security is often a main concern and people “automatically think more light is better, when that is not the case.” He added that in the past “the cheapness of electricity led to inconsiderate use of lighting.”
Lumpkin thinks that installing low-pressure sodium lights would be best for
field observing. Low-pressure sodium lights are the easiest kind of light to
filter. Unfortunately this type of light is harder to come by than most and
makes recognizing colors difficult. In light of these drawbacks, Lumpkin said
high-pressure sodium lights would be his second choice for the school to use.