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Jessica Dwyer, academic program manager at the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the U, founded Dark Sky SLC, a nonprofit, to protect and preserve the night sky on a hyper-local level.

By Lisa Potter, science writer, University Marketing & Communications

In early October beneath a full harvest moon, Jessica Dwyer spoke about artificial light at night to a packed auditorium at the Tracy Aviary, facing a group bundled up against the chilly night air. The visitors had attended the “Birds, Beer, and Bortle Scale” event to glimpse feathered shadows migrate in front of the moon (birds), taste Fisher Brewing Company drinks (beer) and learn about light pollution (the Bortle Scale measures night sky quality). It was the first official event of the Salt Lake Chapter of the International Dark Sky Association (Dark Sky SLC).

PHOTO CREDIT: Bettymaya Foott

View of the sky glow of Salt Lake City from Rockport. Light pollution interferes with more than stargazing; it impacts many aspects of modern human and non-human life.

Dwyer, academic program manager at the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Utah, founded the nonprofit chapter to protect and preserve the night sky on a hyper-local level. Through outreach and community organizing, she hopes to give Salt Lake City residents the tools to take action against light pollution to protect their health, safety, wellbeing and environment. She was invited to start SLC Dark Sky by the U’s Consortium for Dark Sky Studies, the first academic center in the world dedicated to studying the impact of the disappearing dark.

“The consortium is a place where industry and academia address light pollution, but there isn’t a citizen component,” says Dwyer, who is also a member of the consortium. “I founded Dark Sky SLC because the power of this work is in the individual’s ability to make a difference  – it’s a rare issue where individual, communities, companies and policy makers can all contribute meaningfully. I can change my porch light, or I can work to change city lighting policy – Dark Sky SLC supports local, community-based work.”

Birds, Beer and the Bortle Scale

Most songbirds migrate at night, Dwyer told the crowd of bird lovers, who murmured their surprise. When they pass through brightly-lit cities, they become confused and collide into buildings. This kills approximately 1 billion North American songbirds every year, she continued. The crowd responded with a stunned silence.

Excess artificial light at night, or light pollution, impacts far more than wildlife. Light pollution has been linked to depression, blood pressure and other diseases. It interferes with ozone pollution dissipating overnight. The United States wastes $3.3 billion annually on outdated lighting systems. Poor neighborhoods tend to have the worst light pollution, based on the myth that brighter lights make safer streets.

“Dark skies are a perfect way to encourage people from all backgrounds to preserve the night skies; you can focus on family and health. If you support governmental fiscal responsibility, we can improve that by addressing light pollution. You can be aware of the global climate crisis,” says Dwyer. “There were all types of people at this event. I was really pleased with how many sportsmen were there. They told me about how light pollution has impacted their ability to see stars from their family’s cabin, or how light has impacted a herd of elk they’d followed for years.”

SLC Dark Sky is a local chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association, the leader in fighting light pollution worldwide. The chapter’s co-sponsors, Cooper Farr and Tim Brown of the Tracey Aviary, helped organize “Birds, Beer, and the Bortle Scale” because of artificial lighting’s direct impact on bird migration.

“Cooper, Tim and I strategized a lot to conceive of this chapter, and tried make focus on the hyper-local to build really strong relationships that are mutually beneficial to preserving night skies,” says Dwyer. “What you do matters just as much as how you do it.”

The event was indeed a local affair: The Fisher Brewing Company, a Salt Lake City favorite committed to local ingredients and local Mountain West Hard Cider provided the beverages for the evening. The Hex Press, a local printing company, made handcarved stencils representing Dark Sky SLC and printed shirts onsite. The University of Utah AstronomUrs club set up a telescope so attendees could see the harvest moon up-close. Bettymaya Foott of the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative and the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies was on hand to provide insight into the value of protecting the night skies.

“It was great to engage with residents of the big city; many asked what they could do to make a difference. They were already doing it by supporting a dark sky event!” says Foott. “If you are looking for ways to protect the night sky, you can support Dark Sky SLC, check whether your own lighting at home is fully shielded, and talk to your community representatives about local lighting ordinances.”

Utahns protect the night

Utah is home to more dark sky-designated places than anywhere else in the world, two of which are close to Salt Lake City; star gazers can see the Milky Way sprawled across the sky on Antelope Island and at North Fork Park in Eden, Utah.

Access to truly dark skies is becoming an increasingly precious resource — light pollution prevents nearly 80 percent of Americans from seeing the Milky Way from their house. For Dwyer, dark skies can bring together all Utahns to protect their unique environment.

“The environmental movement that started in the early 1970s failed because they embraced identity politics that excluded a lot of people. The premise was that I’m right and you’re wrong,” she says. “Dark skies has a lot less emotion, less politics, and more solution-finding. And I’m interested in finding solutions much more than I am in being right.”

Join Dark Sky SLC and help defend the dark.