Documentary explores the effects of light pollution

story by Brady Tackett, special to The City Wire

FAYETTEVILLE — What if the stars disappeared from sight?

That’s the question at the heart of The City Dark, a 2011 documentary that the University of Arkansas Honors College will screen Monday (March 12). The film, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Environmental Film Fest, explores the long-term consequences of light pollution.

“We’re losing this natural heritage that’s been handed down from generation to generation. Over the last 200 years, it’s just disappearing,” said Connie Walker, astronomer and education specialist at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

Walker will lead a stargazing session at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Hog Haus Brewing Co. on Dickson Street as a sort of preview to the documentary screening. City Dark director Ian Cheney will show his film at 5:30 p.m. the next day at the Arkansas Union Ballroom.

Walker will use a sky quality meter to measure light pollution levels in downtown Fayetteville at the March 11 stargazing. America is among the worst light polluters in the world, Walker said.

“If you take a look at the night sky maps of the world, we are very, very bad. You take one look at it and go, ‘Oh my gosh, are there any dark areas at all?’” Walker said. “It’s just that the population density is so high.”

The film, which director Ian Cheney created during a move from rural Maine to New York City, explores the effects of light pollution on wildlife and the human imagination.

“The greatest numbers of our populations are centered in metropolitan areas, and so all of those children are never going to see those stars,” said AJ Salois, a UA senior majoring in physics and English.

Salois, a former Honors College employee, dreamed up the event after studying astronomy at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory near Santiago, Chile.

“You’re outside from sunset until sunrise, awake all night with your camera,” Salois said, “looking out across the darkness with the Milky Way just spreading over your head, and then you’ve got these splotches of light coming out of the ground.

“You can just see how the thing that’s above you is in so much danger because the things that are around you are just growing,” she said.

Salois said she worries that soon the night sky will disappear from modern consciousness.

“There are very few references to the stars anymore. That didn’t use to be the case. If you look at any ancient culture, they have huge references to the night sky and stories about all the constellations,” she said.

The two-day event is the first in a new series called Honors College Invites, said Kendall Curlee, director of communications for the Honors College.

“We will be bringing in thinkers and doers who are dealing with various issues, and this is the start,” Curlee said. “We’ll see where it takes us.”

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