Two Guys Want to Win Back the Starry Skies Above L.A. By Turning Off Lights

Meteor shower caught in time-lapse above Joshua Tree.EXPAND
Meteor shower caught in time-lapse above Joshua Tree.

There are 200 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, but if you live in Downtown L.A. you generally can’t see any of them, thanks to the glow created by 3.9 million residents that some call light pollution. Even in the farthest west San Fernando Valley, filled with hills, dimly illuminated residential roads, ravines and well-scattered homes, it's a special night when the sea of light generated by 1.8 million Valley residents doesn't wash away the Big Dipper and the rest of the heavens.

Sometimes, in the Los Angeles news media, reports pop up about school children from the Eastside or South L.A. so isolated in the city's urban core that they've never been to the Pacific Ocean.

That goes double for the thousands of L.A. kids who've never seen the twinkling cosmos that lies beyond L.A.'s glare. 

Two photographer/filmmakers want to bring starlight back to the big cities of the West.

Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan are creating a book and time-lapse videos designed to influence people and urban leaders, especially in the west, where it's not too late to cut back on light pollution.

They want people to look up at night and see a sky full of stars. Their project, called Skyglow, is taking them to the darkest places in America over the next year, where they will photograph and videotape the true night sky.

They're also going profile the "cities that get it wrong, L.A., Vegas, and cities that get it right — Borrego Springs, Flagstaff, Sedona, that [purposely] limit light."

The team captures Los Angeles at twilight, blazing with thousands of unneeded lights.EXPAND
The team captures Los Angeles at twilight, blazing with thousands of unneeded lights.

Heffernan is a seasoned time-lapse filmmaker. According to Heffernan, “The whole idea is to get funding so we can put together a massive book which will be a visual journey from light-polluted cities to the most pristine areas that remain in the country — and are endangered. We will supplement the images in the book with stories [about] the human relationship to stars through time — archaeoastronomy."

"We will also supplement it with time-lapse videos which journey into these areas as well," he says. Some of the remarkable video can be seen at their Skyglow Kickstarter page

Mehmedinovic calls Los Angeles, thanks to local habits and outdoor lighting design as much as to its sheer size, “one of the worst light polluters on the planet. Fifty percent of the lights point up — and that’s why you can’t see any stars.”

A big culprit is the switch a few years ago by the Los Angeles City Council from sodium vapor lights (which are yellow light on the spectrum) to LED lights (blue light on the spectrum).

The decision to change out the municipal lighting system has cut electricity use and saved money. But because stars also give off blue light, L.A.'s new municipal LEDs, which represent the world's largest LED replacement project and involve tens of thousands of street lights, are drowning out the stars. The same is true in dozens of other cities that have gone LED.

Mehmedinovic points out that the environmental gains from LEDs — L.A. is saving millions of dollars each year on reduced electricity needs — also come with an environmental cost: nocturnal animals are negatively affected by light pollution, he says. 

Star tracks in time-lapse above desert rocks.EXPAND
Star tracks in time-lapse above desert rocks.

“More than 80 percent of the planet has never seen the Milky Way, not even people in the farthest reaches of Africa,” Mehmedinovic says.

“One young man from Los Angeles that I met had gotten in trouble and was given the choice of going to juvenile hall or cleaning up in Yellowstone National Park. It was the first time he had ever seen a star. It changed his life. He lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and has never been back to L.A.”

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