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The Night the Lights Went Out in SB

Skies to Darken at the Tail End of Worldwide Star Count


The anti-light pollution movement - one that traditionally fights for increased visibility, in the literal sense - will experience its second publicity bump so far this month, when Santa Barbara joins Los Angeles and San Francisco with its own observance of Lights Out 8-9 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20. The event aims to leave citizens in the dark, in the best possible way: namely to save energy and enjoy the benefits of a star-filled sky by simply turning off lights they don’t need. Harmoniously, Lights Out SB coincides with the end of the Great World Wide Star Count, an international movement recruiting people to observe the visibility of certain constellations as a means of gauging where light pollution is most obscuring views.

Lights in Town

A primary motivation for Lights Out SB is, of course, energy conservation. In the short term, those organizing the event posit that citywide energy use for Saturday night could decrease by as much as 15 percent if enough people participate in the event by simply shutting off all non-essential lighting. So don’t be surprised if your neighborhood happens to look darker.

Lights Out SB

Phyllis de Picciotto - Santa Barbara Film Festival founder and a Lights Out organizer, though she prefers to think of herself as “a citizen who just cares about the environment” - said people she’s talked to about Lights Out about have responded well. “Based on the response I’ve gotten so far, I expect a groundswell - nothing overwhelming or enormous but a good show of support,” she said. De Picciotto said planning for Lights Out SB only began three weeks ago, after she read an article about the San Francisco event in the LA Times and felt the event was a natural fit for the Santa Barbara mentality. “Mostly because I’ve lived in Santa Barbara for years and I know this has been a very environmentally conscious community, since way before the climate issue,” de Picciotto said. “That is our history.”

She commended the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors for being so responsive to the idea when she stood before them at their Oct. 16 meeting. They not only supported Lights Out SB but also agreed to shut off the lights at the county courthouse in observance of the occasion.

In fact, the one setback de Picciotto notes in setting Lights Out SB into motion is Southern California Edison’s decision not to report the difference in energy consumption during the hour that Santa Barbara residents will be turning off their lights. (Edison is, however, supporting the Lights Out events. A representative from Edison was not reached for comment by press time.) “I’ve never dealt with Edison except to pay my bill,” de Picciotto admitted. “It seems to me that they would have the ability to measure. Why they’re not, I don’t know.”

Lights in the Sky

Perhaps no one is more keenly aware of the effects of light pollution than the members of the city’s local stargazing collective, the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit (SBAU). While Santa Barbara is far enough removed from other light-drenched California cities that it can escape the “light domes” that prohibit natural star viewing, localized light pollution can still ruin what would otherwise be a clear night.

Chuck McPartlin, SBAU outreach coordinator, said he can view stars well enough from his backyard at his Noleta home, safely between but not beneath the light domes of Santa Barbara and Goleta, but neighborhood astronomy can be a tricky proposition. “If you just move thirty feet in the wrong direction, you can get a streetlight nailing you,” McPartlin said. “Especially if you have glaring lights that aren’t properly shielded, they can ruin your ability to see in the dark.”

McPartlin said he himself participated in the Great World Wide Star Count and that the SBAU encouraged its members to do so as well. “Basically, it’s pretty simple. A couple of hours after sunset, look up at a certain constellation, depending on whether you’re in the northern or southern hemisphere. For [North Americans], it’s Cygnus, nearly directly overhead,” he said. Those participating in the event can compare what they observe in the sky with a series of templates available at the event’s website.

As part of his duties with the SBAU, McPartlin said he often has the pleasure of introducing groups of people to the marvels of the night sky - a feat that became all the more difficult as encroaching development blurs out those celestial bodies throughout the state. “When I first started, it was incredibly dark [in Santa Barbara]. It was sometimes a problem to pick out constellations here, there were so many stars,” he said. “That has decreased.”

Santa Barbara - especially in its more remote areas, he noted - still offers an escape from bigger cities with more light saturation. He recalled, for example, giving a presentation to a group from Los Angeles that was camping at Cachuma. “They’re just amazed what they can see,” McPartlin said. “They will see the Milky Way and ask ‘what that strange cloudy thing is.’” A fan of any measure that helps him share his love, McPartlin said he felt Lights Out could help Santa Barbara residents realize just how great a dark sky can be. “We think it’s great,” he said. “And it would be great if we could connect with people who are out and show them some eye candy.”

The results of the Star Count - which officially ended on Oct. 15 but is still accepting reports from those willing to trek out and look up - are entirely dependent upon how many people participate. They will eventually be available at the count’s official website. Read more about Lights Out SB at the group’s website. And check out the website for the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit to learn more about upcoming stargazing events.



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