There is a theft ring here on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
It’s made up of locals and tourists alike. They are stealing a precious part of life here.
They are stealing the night.
They are stealing the night from stargazers and lovers, from porch-sitters and beachgoers, from young and old.
They are stealing the night by flooding it with light, light that threatens our view of the spectacular Milky Way, the constellations that dip to the horizon, the shooting stars.
And it’s unnecessary. Unnecessary and uneconomical and unwise.
We’re all to blame. Businesses aim spotlights up from the ground to illuminate their signs, but they light up the heavens as well. Homeowners add security lights to their residences, but they light up the night as well. Visitors turn on porch lights, pool lights, and spotlights at all hours, but they light up the neighborhood as well — or the beach if the house is on the oceanfront.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We can take back the night.
Since I first wrote about the theft of the night sky on our islands in 1996, business owners have become more savvy about how to provide lighting for buildings and parking lots. Residents have become more sophisticated about lighting their houses, pools, and landscaping. Visitors have learned that turning out outdoor lights at night make them not only more welcome neighbors in our communities but also allows them a breath-taking view of the heavens.
We don’t have street lights on the islands, but when do have security lights installed request by our electric cooperatives at businesses and residences.
Since 1996, the Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative has made significant improvements in the type of fixtures used in its security lights.
Back then, CHEC had mercury vapor lights but had just started using high-pressure sodium fixtures on new installations and when replacing them. Now, the company is working with other eastern North Carolina cooperatives to purchase LED lighting, according to general manager Susan Flythe.
LED technology — light emitting diodes — is an advance in outdoor lighting since the panels face down and eliminate much of the “light trespass” into the night sky. These fixtures will be used on new lights and when replacing older ones.
Also, despite the boom in development on the island since 1996, CHEC has installed fewer security lights than you might expect. There were 720 back then and there are only 996 today — an increase of only 38 percent in 18 years.
Apparently, businesses and homeowners are figuring out that there are more efficient, less costly, and more night-sky friendly ways to make their properties attractive and keep them safe at night.
And, finally, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is embarking on a major night-sky initiative as part of the National Park Service’s celebration of the centennial of its establishment in 1916.
During 2016, each park will chose several projects to showcase as it celebrates its first 100 years and looks forward to the next 100. Projects are focused on the Park Service’s core mission of protecting natural resources while providing enjoyment of natural places to the public.
One of the projects chosen by the Outer Banks Group’s Centennial Celebration Committee — an interdisciplinary team that includes 11 staff members from all of the park’s divisions — is the dark sky initiative called “Starry, Starry Night.”
“You don’t think of the dark sky as a natural resource, but it is,” says Cyndy Holda, public relations specialist and a member of the committee.
‘National parks hold some of the last remaining harbors of darkness and provide an excellent opportunity for the public to experience these starry night skies and natural darkness,” the Park Service says.
She notes that northeastern North Carolina has some of the darkest skies east of the Mississippi River and certainly on the East Coast — which is one reason the committee focused on the night sky. Additionally, she says, the initiative would enhance sea turtle protection measures and the Park Service’s “go green” goal to protect the environment and save energy.
The centerpiece of “Starry, Starry Night” is being recognized as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
IDA is a non-profit organization headquartered in Tucson, Ariz., Founded in 1988, the group is the leading advocate and recognized authority for night sky protection and has taken the lead in identifying and publicizing the adverse impacts of artificial light at night on human health, wildlife, the climate, and, of course, our enjoyment of spectacular heavens at night.
IDA established the International Dark Sky Places conservation program in 2001 “to recognize excellent stewardship of the night sky.” An International Dark Sky park is “a location of exceptional nighttime beauty, dark skies education, and preservation of the nighttime environment.”
Nineteen parks are recognized on the IDA website, including seven national parks or monuments. If the Cape Hatteras National Seashore wins approval from IDA, it would be the first national seashore designated as a Dark Sky Park.
Parks must apply for designation, and IDA has rigorous guidelines and requirements, including a lightscape management plan and a commitment to public education.
For the lightscape management plan, Holda says, the park must produce an inventory of its lighting and whether or not it is night-sky friendly. She says the park is fortunate in that it had a preliminary lighting assessment done around 2008 as part of its efforts to protect sea turtles.
Now it needs a more thorough inventory of what it has, what it needs, and how much it will cost.
According to IDA guidelines, two-thirds of the park’s lighting must meet the requirements of its lighting management plan when it applies for designation. Ninety percent must comply with the plan in five years.
The committee is working with an assumption that perhaps one-fourth of the current lights are compliant or easy fixes, one-fourth need retrofitting, and one-fourth may not be needed. Then, she said the park could meet the IDA requirements for applying for dark sky designation and then complete the rest of the retrofitting or replacement by the end of five years.
Holda says the committee thinks the seashore can pay for the night-sky project by applying for centennial funds that NPS has available and through the park’s and the Southeast Region’s maintenance funds.
As for as the public education requirement for designation, the park already has several programs underway that it intends to expand.
The first is its night-sky interpretative programs. In the summer, they include “Night Sky over Hatteras,” a Thursday climb of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse,” and a program exploring the night life along the tidelines and beaches.
The goal for the Centennial Celebration would be to expand those programs.
Also, the Park Service would like to repeat an outreach effort it undertook several years ago to educate visitors who rent oceanfront houses about how lights affect sea turtle nesting. NPS designed and printed several thousand brochures and stickers for light switches that were distributed through island rental management companies.
The brochures were entitled, “Sea Turtles and Artificial Lighting,” and the stickers reminded visitors to turn off house and pool lights facing the beach at night.
The park is looking for partners to help with printing and distributing more of these materials.
And it will be looking for partners — residents, homeowners, businesses, civic groups, schools and others — to participate in the “Starry, Starry Night” and other programs for the 2016 Centennial.
Among the other programs under consideration are “Arts Afire,” painting with schoolchildren or local artists: “Play it Safe,” improving safety for employees and visitors; “Go Green,” reducing the carbon footprint of the park, and “Out with the Old,” replacing the sale of plastic bottles that litter beaches and roadsides with water bottle refilling stations.
We’ll be hearing more about “Starry, Starry Night” and other programs as 2016 gets closer.
Meanwhile, let’s remember that the spectacular night sky is one of the qualities of life on the islands that makes them a special place to live and attracts thousands of visitors each year. Let’s not destroy it.
Instead, let us continue working together to take back the night.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For more information on the International Dark-Sky Association and International Dark Sky Parks, go to http://www.darksky.org.