Quest for darkness

“Your life can be changed by a firsthand connection with the night sky.”

  • The Milky Way illuminates sandstone cliffs in Arches National Park, Utah

  • Chad Moore with camera atop Mount Washington in Great Basin National Park, Nevada


"DON'T ACT LIKE BAIT," warns Chad Moore, only half-joking. As we hurry down a dark, quiet path toward the edge of Bryce Canyon, we're living on mountain lion time, and hoping the cats will grant us an uneventful evening. 

Moore, a pale, wiry 37-year-old, is a leader of the National Park Service Night Sky Team, and he's used to unusual hours. He and his colleagues travel to parks around the country, scaling peaks and rooftops to measure the depth of darkness. 

When Moore and I reach the edge of the canyon - using only small red flashlights for better night vision - the sky is powdered with stars, and darkness pools around us. The sculpted rim of the canyon, in south-central Utah, forms a high, cold ridge between the sparsely populated Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin, but the darkness here isn't complete. The small cities of Kanab and Cedar City throw pale domes of light on the horizon, and Page, Ariz., glares yellow in the distance. The sophisticated digital camera Moore carries, whose high-resolution photos form a detailed mosaic image of the sky, will confirm that this view is about 5 percent brighter than a perfectly dark sky. 

"When I got into this project, I had no idea of the extent to which light could be seen," says Moore. "I thought there would be lots of parks that were absolutely pristine, that our mission would be to take pictures of them before the darkness was degraded. But it's been really, really hard to find a park that doesn't have a trace of light pollution." 

MOORE GREW UP in Honolulu, where city lights obscured the night sky. In high school, when his parents gave him a telescope, he and his friends started to take stargazing trips outside the city. "By high school, we were having to go further and further out to find areas that were darker," he remembers. "We literally got to the edge of the island, and had no place left to go." 

The world has continued, in the words of Italian astronomer Pierantonio Cinzano, to "envelop itself in a luminous fog." Cinzano's 2001 atlas of artificial night sky brightness estimated that two-thirds of the U.S. population, and one-fifth of the world population, can no longer see the Milky Way with the naked eye. 

Years after leaving Hawaii, Moore was working as a physical scientist at Pinnacles National Monument in California, and he once again noticed the lights of nearby cities on the horizon. Darkness, he realized, was another park resource, like soils or water or air, that needed to be measured and protected for both wildlife and human visitors. Yet there was no formal Park Service program for darkness protection, and no one inside or outside the agency offered a practical way to monitor light pollution in the backcountry. So Moore made up some letterhead for the "Park Service Night Sky Team," and, with a team of one, launched a new park program.

A few months after this unofficial founding in 1999, Park Service scientist Dan Duriscoe made the team a reality, and seasonal staffers and volunteers later rounded out the crew. By 2004, thanks to a series of small internal grants, Moore and Duriscoe were working full-time on the Night Sky Team. With advice from professional astronomers, the pair experimented with methods of measuring darkness, spending several years developing a camera system that was precise, affordable, and light enough to lug into the backcountry. 

"We spent a lot of time with flashlights stuck between our teeth, trying to get things to work in the dark," says Moore. One setup included both an unwieldy telescope and a 35-pound set of lead-acid batteries, and Angie Richman, a Bryce Canyon ranger who works closely with the team, remembers that she once threatened to throw her heavy load over the edge of the canyon. "I thought she was serious," says Moore. "I was like, 'Please don't.' " 

BRYCE CANYON MAY BE IMPERFECTLY dark, but Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument surely ought to be the heart of darkness. To reach the interior of the monument, on the isolated Arizona Strip just north of the Grand Canyon, Moore and I jounce down 88 miles of dirt road, emerging - dusty and practically pureed - in a dead-quiet stand of ponderosa pines at the base of Mount Dellenbaugh. 

With their camera system perfected and pared down to a relatively manageable 50 pounds, Moore and the other team members have gauged darkness at 55 parks, ranging from Acadia National Park in Maine to Death Valley in Southern California. The team finds a place with a 360-degree view, waits for a cloudless night, and stays up until the wee hours as the camera slowly rotates on its tripod, feeding its series of images into a laptop computer. 

The resulting photos and measurements have inspired several parks to work with local governments on new and existing lighting ordinances - and to change their own lighting practices, replacing what some lighting specialists call "glare bombs" with shielded bulbs that shine only on the ground. Last April, Natural Bridges National Monument was the first "International Dark Sky Park" certified by the International Dark-Sky Association, thanks to the monument's isolation - the nearest town is 30 miles away, and only a handful of small burgs fall within a 75-mile radius - and revamped lighting system. 

In the late afternoon, Moore and I load our packs for the hike up Mount Dellenbaugh, a long-spined volcanic mountain topped with wobbly, outsized boulders. We reach the peak just before sunset, in time to see the mountain's shadow stretching across the juniper and sagebrush flats at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The peak log has only a few entries, including one from an enthusiastic wandering lichenologist and one from a previous visit of the Night Sky Team. As the sky gets darker, the air gets abruptly colder, and we bundle up as if for a ski trip. 

Isolated though it may be, even Parashant is no haven for the darkness. Above the western horizon, a string of planes line up to land in Las Vegas, 90 miles away. Moore points out constellations, but then turns to identifying the flying-saucer-shaped glow of Las Vegas, and the light domes of St. George, Mesquite, Page, and even Phoenix, almost 200 miles to the south. Together it makes the view from Mount Dellenbaugh about 14 percent brighter than the elusive pristine night sky - even brighter than the view from the edge of Bryce Canyon. 

IN SOME WAYS, DARKNESS IS A DIFFICULT thing to rally around - it's abstract and scary, often seen as a geeky concern best left to astronomers. But for many, stargazing is also a source of wonder, the stuff of intense childhood memories. Moore hopes his work, and the attention it's garnered, will not only supply data to the Park Service, but also inspire more direct experience of the dark. 

"A lot of people download a cool picture of some galaxy for their computer wallpaper, but that's a virtual experience," he says. "No one's life is changed by a picture they saw. Your life can be changed by a firsthand connection with the night sky." 

And despite the Night Sky Team's initial focus on the nation's darkest parks - Capitol Reef in Utah, Natural Bridges, some parts of Death Valley - Moore argues that darkness doesn't have to be perfect to be powerful. "Acadia isn't as dark as Bryce, but it's awesome," he says. "The camera might say it's a B-minus sky, but if people are moved by it, if they find joy in it, then it's equally important." 

While the camera atop Mount Dellenbaugh clicks and beeps its way around the horizon, my own wonder gradually gives way to exhaustion, and I curl up in a sleeping bag on the leeward side of a rock. When I wake up, Moore is red-eyed but grinning, thrilled to have had another night free of both clouds and cougars. "What a job!" he says. He clicks on his red flashlight, shoulders his camera gear, and leads the long, pre-dawn stumble down the mountain, intent on the next dark spot on the horizon. 

 The author is a High Country News contributing editor.

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