Light Pollution Killed the Big Dipper in L.A., and These Guys Say We Can Bring It Back

Star trails, captured via time-lapse, spin over Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015.EXPAND
Star trails, captured via time-lapse, spin over Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015.
Harun Mehmedinovic/Gavin Heffernan,

Like the ocean, the stars have a pull on us. Stars tug our eyes skyward and fuel the imagination.

So it’s difficult to digest the fact that half the people on Earth have never seen a starry night, many of them in China, where light pollution and smog obliterate the heavens.

Harun Mehmedinovic says, “Someone who lived on a Midwest farm wrote us that his family had an exchange student from Beijing, and when the student walked into the dark he started crying, because it was the first time he had seen stars.”

During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, L.A. plunged into darkness. People, he says, flooded 911 with calls about a strange cloud covering the night sky. “It was the Milky Way.”

Using time-lapse photography, Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan have filmed breathtaking starry skies in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Death Valley and Joshua Tree, where true night still survives.

That imagery will be included in their upcoming book and videos about skyglow, a term that refers to the brightness of night in built-up areas caused by light pollution. Their goal is to influence the often ill-informed decisions made by city planners, lighting designers and politicians that significantly worsen light pollution, wiping out more and more starlight each year.

On May 9, their Kickstarter project, Skyglow, surpassed its crowdsourcing goal of $70,000 from 804 people. In a few days, Mehmedinovic and Heffernan will leave L.A. to document the few remaining “dark sky” areas on the Eastern seaboard.

They'll start in Maine and work their way to Key West, where they'll take a ferry 70 miles to the Dry Tortugas fortress where the Lincoln assassination conspirators were hung — a dark place indeed. They'll hit other surviving dark places, including parts of the Shenandoah Valley, Smoky Mountains, North Carolina's Outer Banks and New River Gorge in West Virginia.

By fall, they'll be back shooting their final night skies in the West before putting together their book and videos.

The two men see Skyglow as a warning cry as much as an artistic endeavor, and some cities are keenly interested in what they have to say. Each year since 2007, Sydney, Australia, has observed a monthly Earth Hour, when residents and businesses turn off all non-essential lights for an hour.

Earth Hour has spread to more than 7,000 cities. But not Los Angeles. Mehmedinovic calls L.A. “one of the worst light polluters on the planet. … Fifty percent of the lights point up” — a key reason “why you can’t see any stars.”

Their online videos, viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, offer almost psychedelic images of stars and clouds zooming across the night sky. They achieve their artistry using still cameras, opening the shutters for 25-second exposures.

It requires 24 frames to make a single second of time-lapse video. A 10-second video takes 240 frames. The longest Skyglow video runs four minutes. They used massive computer hard drives to piece together 57,600 frames.

“Making the videos is a very painstaking process,” says Heffernan, based in Los Angeles. “Half my office is filled with hard drives.”

But, he says, “Sitting under a wild night sky really makes my imagination expand. It allows me to consider realities and existence beyond our terrestrial plane, beyond the heavily explored frontiers.”

Their first video was YIKÁÍSDÁHÁ, a Navajo word for the Milky Way that translates to “that which awaits the dawn.” Shot in Grand Canyon National Park and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, it features time-lapse footage of majestic mesas made famous in John Ford Westerns. Clouds zip by in waves, clipping the tops of tall red rock monuments. Then darkness falls, and the real action begins.

Another video, created by Heffernan, focused on the tiny town of Borrego Springs, 30 miles south of Palm Springs. The California city has won back its starry nights.

According to Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Linda Haddock, “We don’t leave a light on for anyone. We even tell people to turn out their porch lights. … We put shields on our lights so they don’t shine up — and we use amber hues and lower-wattage bulbs.”

In the broader scheme, Haddock says, “We manage mankind’s light so it doesn’t negatively impact the night sky. If you come here, you won’t be able to see your hand in front of your face — but you’ll see the Milky Way like you’ve never seen it before. It’s a very big deal for us.”

Borrego Springs loved Heffernan’s video and feted him at an annual celebration of the stars. He says, “I rode in the parade and my likeness was on posters and T-shirts. I got to judge the beauty contest. Pretty surreal.”

L.A. is a laggard in the dark sky movement. The city was praised by environmentalists and government watchdogs for replacing 140,000 high-pressure sodium street lights with energy-efficient LEDs. But widespread local ignorance regarding the light spectrum has left L.A. with a new environmental problem. The Bureau of Street Lighting, on its website, declares: “We have received many positive comments from citizens, community groups, the [LAPD] and even the Dark Skies Association for the reduced sky glow at night.”

That's not quite right.

Christian Luginbuhl, a retired astronomer and the spokesman for Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition‚ says it's a positive if L.A. improves “shielding” — that is, prevents lights from glowing upward — and lowers the illumination levels of its municipal lighting.

Unfortunately, he says, L.A. leaders replaced outdoor lighting that was on the yellow-red part of the light spectrum with “white” LED lights which emit blue light, a big cause of light pollution. “The switch in spectrum is a very strong effect, and it turns out almost certainly has overwhelmed any benefits from the other changes” made by L.A., says Luginbuhl.

L.A.'s leaders weren't in the scientific loop. “They have increased [skyglow] by a substantial amount,” Luginbuhl notes. “They are not aware of the impact of [LED] lights on skyglow.”

Mehmedinovic and Heffernan are self-taught photographers. They met at the American Film Institute and soon realized they had both been shooting time-lapse sequences in the same remote places. Mehmedinovic, a photography professor who splits his time between Culver City and Flagstaff, Arizona, asked Heffernan to travel to the desert with his Northern Arizona State University students. That led to their collaboration on YIKÁÍSDÁHÁ, Grand Canyon-Monument Valley video.

Mehmedinovic believes the negative impacts of light pollution are being ignored because it's an invisible problem.

Scott Kardel, managing director of the International Dark-Sky Association in Tucson, Arizona, explains: “We’re cut off from the stars that have led to scientific inquiry and art and have shaped religions throughout the world. The Egyptians would have been lost without the stars.”

Kardel says that light permeating the cities causes psychological and biological problems, negatively impacts human sleep habits, birds and insects — even sea turtle hatchlings, who confuse beachfront street lights with stars and cross streets, only to be crushed by cars.

The two men want city folks to know what they've lost — and push for change, including adoption of municipal LED lights that contain more amber or yellow light, not blue light.

In Death Valley Dreamlapse, one of their videos, Mehmedinovic and Heffernan clamber over sand dunes in 120-degree heat. “I compare what we do to fishing,” Heffernan says. “The farther you go and the more remote the place, the better the fishing. Same thing when looking for dark skies.”

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