Here's why light pollution is putting Bay Area astronomers' work in jeopardy

Zach Fuentes Image
Thursday, March 16, 2023
Bay Area scientists are concerned with growing light pollution
University of California Lick Observatory astronomers are becoming more concerned with growing light pollution.

MT HAMILTON, Calif. (KGO) -- One of the world's leading astronomical research facilities is right here in the Bay Area, but scientists there say they're worried that a growing local trend will make it difficult to continue doing their job.

Though it's made headlines recently for the huge amount of snow received, it's the incredible daily accomplishments from University of California Lick Observatory astronomers that are truly attention-grabbing.

"New worlds are discovered from the summit of Mount Hamilton in Santa Clara County, almost on a routine basis," said astronomer Dr. Paul Lynam.

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But Lynam says their ability to keep doing that kind of work is at risk because of something called light pollution.

"We're talking about the accelerating growth of light in the night sky beyond the natural illumination of the stars and the moon, for example, " Dr. Lynam said, "Largely that's been produced by outdoor lighting sources like streetlights, and billboards, car dealerships and football stadiums."

The artificial light gets scattered, impacting the Mt. Hamilton observatory's work.

"That limits our ability to detect the very faint sources, the astronomical sources in the night sky," he said.

VIDEO: Astronomers atop Mt. Hamilton talk snowfall impacts, power loss, and dangerous travel

Around 30 staffers who live on-site at the top of Mt. Hamilton in the South Bay have been dealing with dangerous driving conditions, power loss, and other impacts from the rare snows.

The Gilroy City Council is set to vote Monday on changing existing rules to allow a digital billboard closer to Highway 101 something that has the observatory and others concerned.

Digital billboards have been linked to light pollution and have been a local hot topic in recent years, particularly in San Jose.

The city recently voting to now allow digital billboards near its airport.

Proponents say the billboards provide marketing opportunities to local businesses and bring money to cities.

Local group No Digital Billboards San Jose says they disagree for many reasons.

"Based on our own research, we've seen in this county, that the majority of the advertisements are national," said Jason Hemp with the group "Or advertising sites outside of the community like San Diego, for example."

Though a report on the proposed Gilroy billboard last year found that there would not be significant impacts to the environment, Lynam says it's not properly taking light pollution into consideration.

Lynam says it's not just their work that's at risk, there are also broader health implications.

The astronomer saying that light pollution has also been linked to various human ailments, like obesity, heart disease and depression.

"More recently, something called mild cognitive impairment, which is a proxy for dementia," he said adding that it's not just one billboard they're focused on.

"The immediate concern or the longer-term concern is this is the latest episode in a long-term trend that we're seeing," Lynam said, "It's not simply the growth of light pollution regionally. But it's the growth of light pollution and the acceleration of light pollution regionally."

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