Defending dark skies of Hawai’i
By Ashley Yeager
Hawai’i State Governor Linda Lingle approved legislation requiring business leaders to strategize plans to preserve dark skies across the state. The new law, passed in June 2009, supports astronomy in Hawai’i and stresses the need to limit light pollution to protect the health of natural habitats, wildlife and even humans.
The county’s citizens have benefited from the foresight of former law-makers who, in 1988, established a lighting ordinance to keep the Big Island’s skies dark. But, the original ordinance was last updated in 1989, when the largest potentially impacted telescope on Mauna Kea was 3.8 meters in diameter and fewer people resided on the island.
Over the last 25 years, the size of the telescopes at the summit has grown to include the two 10-meter Keck telescopes and Hawai’i County’s population has increased by nearly 80,000 people or 86 percent in the last 25 years.
In response to these changes, dark sky advocates have been lobbying state legislatures to preserve nighttime skies, especially during this International Year of Astronomy, or IYA 2009. In Hawai’i, lawmakers and lobbyists drafted legislation that required the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, or DBEDT, assisted by a temporary advisory committee, to construct starlight reserves.
These designated sites have a core dark zone surrounded by a buffer and external zone. The dark zone will be an unpolluted area where natural night sky light conditions remain intact. The intermediate buffer zone would surround the dark zone to minimize adverse effects of air and light pollution. The external zone would surround the inner two regions to protect the interior night sky quality from pollution. This outer region would also have to follow “intelligent and responsible lighting criteria,” according to Hawai’i State Bill 536.
University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy researcher Richard Wainscoat supported this initiative and testified before the Hawai’i State Legislature that “air molecules and dust scatter artificial light into the telescopes.” He explained that a ten percent increase in artificial light compared to its natural value makes the effective size of a telescope ten percent smaller. The starlight preserves, which would most likely include Mauna Kea and Haleakala on Maui, could envelope the two mountains to preserve darkness for astronomy.
Hawai’i DBEDT Director Ted Liu testified that the starlight preserves would protect and promote cultural heritages associated with the night sky and help safeguard the equilibrium of the biosphere. Office of Hawaiian Affairs, or OHA, representatives also argued that the night sky is important to native culture for identifying the stars used in navigation and also for planting, fishing and harvesting. The dark regions would provide darkness for these uses of the sky, and OHA has therefore requested to have a representative on the advisory committees that plan the reserves.
The testimonies convinced the House and Senate to pass the dark skies legislation in May 2009.
After passing both the House and Senate, the bill moved to Gov. Lingle’s desk in early June of 2009, and state residents were urged to comment on the potential law.
On behalf of Keck Observatory, Director Taft Armandroff responded, advocating the scientific aspect that dark skies provide to astronomy and to the state. Director of Advancement Debbie Goodwin also called on friends of the Observatory to lend their voice.
“Starlight over our state is a precious resource for science, scientific leadership, for beauty and yes, for romance,” Keck Observatory friends Doug and Linda Lanterman wrote in a letter to the Governor.
Mainland resident Sam McClung wrote: “I am one of thousands of visitors to the Big Island of Hawai’i that find the Observatories on Mauna Kea a wonderful symbol of some of the unique advantages our fiftieth state provides. Please keep the skies dark at night so that the telescopes can continue their uninhibited exploration of our universe,” he testified.
McClung, a California resident, also explained that his state’s “big telescopes (Wilson & Palomar) are severely restricted in their performance by the huge population growth and the unrestricted light that we send into the sky. Don’t let this happen to Hawai’i!”
If the law is enacted as written, it won’t.