Sunday, December 28, 2008

Dark Skies Won't Last Forever

Photo: Dan Duriscoe, National Park Service.

I suffer from an ailment called over preparedness. So as soon as my flight was booked for Vegas, I was researching both Vegas, and Death Valley.

Obviously, as a photographer, any opportunity to change up my routine even for a short trip is a nice way to refresh the creative battery. By no means am I trying to imply that I have somehow run out of things to shoot close to home, actually, I have a list that could take me a few years of dedicated shooting, or a lifetime of casual shooting. Living in a place with 4 seasons you could in theory shoot the same scene 4 times a year and each one will be unique in it's own way. I always laugh when people say, "there is nothing interesting to shoot close to home." Yet often their home is someone else's travel destination.

Largely the reason why I was so excited about the aborted Wind River trip this summer was the fact that I needed a change of scenery. So while I wasn't ecstatic about my brothers bachelor party being in Las Vegas, I'm also cognizant that Vegas is perhaps one of the great jumping off points in the western US. Within a 5 hour drive there is an incredible amount to do from a natural perspective, and Vegas itself is I'm sure quite photogenic. Cheap flights and cheap car rental make Las Vegas sort of an oddly perfect place to start a trip into the Western US wilds.

Death Valley is no doubt scenic in many ways, but while it might sound a bit hippie-ish, I love trees, I even hug one every now and then. I also don't mind water, actually, I love water. Perhaps it's something to do with the human body being 60% water and life originating in the sea! The real treat for me is going to be the hopefully clear dark skies of the Mojave Desert.

Sure enough we have some places with amazingly dark skies here in the eastern US. I cannot say with any data confirmed certainty but my recollection of my trips out west is that the skies are not tremendously darker than the Northern Adirondacks on a clear night, certainly not any more dark than Northern Maine. The only exception is perhaps the canyons of Southern Utah, which seemed to reveal shooting stars every time I opened my eyes while trying asleep on the desert floor. The problem is that here in the east it's also often quite cloudy, and the chance of rain coupled with condensation, make star trails a difficult endeavor. It just so happens that I've ruined a few star trails because of condensation on my camera lenses.

So coming across the following article was quite a bit disheartening. Every time my Dad comes upstate, he comments on how it's nice to see the stars at night, and of course I laugh, but the reality is seeing the stars might not be something we should take for granted anymore. Afterall, if a place as desolate as Death Valley, which is so famous for it's dark skies that the first thing I thought of was star trails, then maybe this is something that might be just a memory in a generation or two!

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK ----- High atop Dante's View, overlooking
sheets of salt flats and ribbons of sand dunes, night watcher Dan
Duriscoe shone a laser beam at the North Star and steadied his digital
camera at the starry heavens.

Click. The sky looks dark.

panned the camera toward the light factory of Las Vegas, 85 miles away
but peeking out like a white halo above the mountains in the eastern

Click. The sky is on fire.

"You can see the
Luxor vertical beam," said Duriscoe, pointing to a time-exposure shot
on his camera-connected laptop showing the Vegas Strip pyramid-shaped
hotel's famous searchlight. "That's the brightest thing out there."

for its ink black skies, Death Valley, the hottest place in North
America, also ranks among the nation's unspoiled stargazing spots. But
the vista in recent years has grown blurry.

The glitzy neon glow
from Las Vegas and its burgeoning bedroom communities is stealing stars
from the park's eastern fringe. New research reveals light pollution
from Vegas increased 61 percent between 2001 and 2007, making it appear
brighter than the planet Venus on clear nights as seen from Dante's

Duriscoe, a soft-spoken, mustachioed physical scientist
with the National Park Service, is part of a roving federal team of
night owls whose job is to gaze up at the sky and monitor for light
pollution in national parks.

"What is alarming to me is, what's
going to happen three or four generations from now if this growth of
outdoor lights continues?" he asked.

Death Valley works to preserve night sky : North County Times - Californian

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  1. You might like to see this pic:

    A challenge for your pano head :-)

    I agree it's sad to think that most city children these days don't know there are thousands of stars visible in the night sky, not to mention the awe-inspiring view of the Milky Way.

  2. Thanks for the link. I didn't bother to look for a photo even though it mentioned him shooting the stars, added the photo up top since it adds a bit to the story. Absolutely incredible. I actually hadn't thought about doing that. And probably would not try it unless I lived, or had considerable time in a place like that. I have enough trouble getting a single decent star trail. I guess the flip side is I could do this with a digital since it's generally a short exposure for non streaking stars! Something to consider on a trip with multiple tripods and cameras!

    BTW, I'm 98% caught up with 2008 photos...So yes, I will start using that pano head shortly!