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Communities in north-central Pennsylvania are taking action to limit outdoor artificial lighting that is encroaching on what has become a crucial resource in the region: darkness.
Satellite data show the Pennsylvania Wilds, a rural region comprising millions of acres of mountains and forestland that feature sterling views of the night sky, is slowly being contaminated by light. To protect that darkness and the commerce it brings, the region’s environmental groups and residents are pushing for municipal ordinances that regulate light, and educating local businesses about darkness preservation.
They hope to slow a trend that has been affecting views east of the Mississippi River for decades. Pennsylvania — alongside Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin — is one of the few states with pristine views of the night sky, a dwindling resource across the world.
The PA Wilds have long been a holdout, but over the past decade, light pollution has slowly spread to the area, and after a brief dip during the pandemic, it’s creeping back up.
Brian Reid, 39, a photographer who moved back to his hometown of Emporium about a decade ago, has seen firsthand the impact of the pollution on the region.
Reid began to photograph the stars and the Milky Way core in Cameron County in 2012. In 2016 he noticed an orange glow in some photos, a sign of light pollution.
The glow made him worry about how long the darkness would remain.
“I sometimes wonder, am I taking the last shots of the Milky Way that’ll ever be seen in Pennsylvania?” he said. “It’s like taking a respectful picture of a species that’s going extinct.”He now advocates for curtailing light pollution, and takes as many photos of the night sky as possible to document its beauty while it lasts.”You see the depth and the scale of the whole universe,” he said of the brilliant celestial views.
The Pennsylvania Outdoor Lighting Council is just as determined to preserve dark skies. The group of volunteers helps municipalities draft local ordinances that regulate artificial lighting through practices such as requiring that light be shielded and directed downward.
Last year, Pittsburgh passed an ordinance to use “dark sky lighting” in city parks, facilities, and street lights.
According to a news release from the mayor’s office in August 2021, “Dark sky lighting is the use of technology, lower color temperature and shielding to minimize the use of outdoor lighting to only that needed for comfort and safety.”
“It’s a relatively easy fix that all local governments could take on,” Grant Ervin, a former senior city planning official for Pittsburgh, told Bloomberg. “It’s one of the tools that local governments have an ability to regulate and install as standard.”
Barry Johnson, a volunteer for the lighting council, mentioned that the state legislature attempted to pass a bill in 2001 to regulate state-owned outdoor lights, but the bill died in committee.