Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Europe during last night's lunar eclipse

Yesterday morning the moon passed into the Earth's shadow. The period of totality happened to occur just as the Suomi NPP satellite was passing over Europe and northern Africa. Suomi carries the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which includes a "Day Night Band" which is the best (and only) full-Earth nighttime imaging sensor. That makes for a very pretty picture:

Image and Data processing by NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center,
cropped and enhanced by me. This image can be used with credit to NOAA and me.

Blogger has limits on the image size, so you probably want to see this higher resolution version (the full resolution version is hundreds of Mb, if you want to download it you can for the next two weeks here).

When the moon is full, Suomi can see clouds and land extremely well, and oceans and lakes appear extremely dark. The brightest spots are artificial light from human settlements. For example, check out this zoom in of the Nile delta, Israel, and the Gulf of Suez from the same image:

Image and Data processing by NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center,
cropped and enhanced by me. This image can be used with credit to NOAA and me.

But during the eclipse, the moonlight is temporarily gone, and the areas of Europe and northern Africa were plunged into starlight, which is just a bit too dim for good imaging from the sensor. Luckily for us, much of Europe had clear skies, meaning that we can see the city lights shining through!

Nearly a year ago I posted an image of a lunar eclipse over North America that is maybe even cooler because of the different gradient in moonlight.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Clouds and aurora in a natural setting

Ray Stinson recently shared these beautiful images of aurora and clouds with me. They were taken in Glacier National Park in Montana, USA.

This image by Ray Stinson is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This image by Ray Stinson is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This image by Ray Stinson is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This image by Ray Stinson is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The orange glow at the horizon in some of the photos is skyglow from Browning, Montana, over 50 kilometers away.

A few years ago, Ray took some photos of dark clouds passing over the Milky Way for me to use in this article that looks at the effects of clouds on skyglow. For nearly all of Earth's history, clouds made the night darker, just like they do in the day. It's only recently that this has been reversed, and we have now observed overcast skies over 2,000 times brighter than the natural star filled sky. We don't yet have models that can tell us where clouds make the sky brighter, but we do know that the affected area is enormous.

Nocturnal animals specialized to live under nighttime light levels. Over much of the Earth's land surface, the night no longer occurs, there is only daytime and twilight. Unfortunately, there has been almost no research into whether and what this change has done to ecosystems.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

on losing my right to vote

This is a story about citizenship, told by a Canadian barred from voting for working outside of the country.

My grandmother was born in 1911, in Leofeld, Saskatchewan, Canada. My grandfather was born in Germany in 1907, and immigrated to Canada in 1912 before he turned five years old. Following their marriage, my grandparents worked the Canadian prairie as farmers. For the first two years of their marriage, they walked to church, because their horses needed rest from the six days of fieldwork. They purchased their own farm in 1942, and they brought some of that land under cultivation for the first time. My grandfather died in 1959, leaving my grandmother to take care of a farm and support seven of their twelve children.

My parents met each other while working in a hospital in the remote northern village of Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan. The same spirit of adventure that drove them to live in the North led them in the 1970s to New Zealand. During my parents time there, my grandmother applied for a Canadian passport in order to visit them. Her passport application was denied because, in the words of the passport office, she was “no longer a Canadian citizen”.

The Canadian government considered my Grandfather an alien during the Second World War, and revoked his citizenship. This meant that my grandmother (who remember was born in Canada) was also no longer a Canadian citizen because… well, because women weren’t entirely people yet in those days, as far as many governments were concerned. As my grandmother had no other citizenship, this meant that she had actually been a stateless person for several decades!

We don’t know if my grandfather was informed about the revocation of his citizenship. If he was, he never told his wife. Imagine the shock and sense of loss she must have felt at being told that she was no longer a citizen of the only country she’d ever known! Thankfully, the wrong was righted, and my grandmother eventually had her Canadian citizenship restored.

I was born in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, and lived there until I moved to Edmonton to go to the U of A. In 2000, I moved from Canada to USA, to do a PhD in particle physics. The experiment I worked on was oddly enough located in Sudbury, Ontario, so in some years I actually spent over 100 days in Canada! While living In the USA as an international student, I met my wife, who is German. We moved to Germany in 2008, because I wanted to learn to be able speak fluently with my family. (It worked.)

I love Canada. I’ve been to every province (seven of them multiple times), and I hope to have the chance to someday visit my family living in Nunavut. We travel to Canada with our two children as often as we can, usually a bit less than once per year. Our children are both proud Canadians who listen to Raffi, are learning to ski and skate, and can sing “O Canada” at the drop of a touque. I hope that at some point in the future, academic jobs will open up for my wife and I, and we’ll be able to return to my home and native land.

Unfortunately, because I’ve resided outside of Canada for over five years, Canada’s election law bars me from voting in Canadian federal elections. Voting is one of the most fundamental rights and responsibilities of a citizen, so when you are barred from voting it means that you are in a very real sense not a full citizen of your country.

It’s hard for me to describe how it feels to be disenfranchised. It certainly makes me very angry. Sometimes it feels almost painful, like somehow, spiritually, a part of me is missing. There is also sadness at being excluded. Prevented from expressing my true patriot love. Unable to stand on guard for the country, by helping to choose its leadership.

The most frustrating part about this exclusion is that it is so unnecessary. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms spells it out in black and white:

3. Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons

The Canada Elections Act is clearly unconstitutional, and I hope that the Supreme Court will find it so when a challenge eventually comes. (You can help with that!) In the meantime, I hope that whenever you hear about Canadian expats, you’ll think about people like me. We are people with deep roots in Canada. We love our country, and we want to continue to be a part of it. It’s just that for reasons of family, occupation, or adventure, we happen to be away for a while.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Flashmob for Science - Berlin September 12, 21:30

September 12 is the second-ever International Night of Skyglow Observation, an official event of UNESCO's "International Year of Light". Around the world, citizen scientists will observe how much light pollution is in their community by looking at the stars. The link above is a very short tip on how to do it.

In Berlin we'll be holding a special event that night, a Flashmob for Science, in which many people will show up to make observations simultaneously at a single location. The flashmob will take place in Park am Gleisdreieck at 21:30 on September 12. More details will be on the Facebook Event page. If you plan to come, please sign up there so that we can communicate with you (e.g. in case of cancellation due to rain).

Here's a map, we will do the observation right on the spot marked by the pine tree.

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Guest post by Allen Versfeld

Allen Versfeld recently took a trip to capture images of good and bad lighting near where he lives in South Africa, and sent the best images he captured to me. I always welcome images of both good and bad lighting for the "view from your app" series.

So I went on a trip especially to collect some images for a light pollution talk I'll be giving soon.  I started at a new shopping mall that was recently built on the edge of town, and then drove out to my home in the country, stopping to photograph whatever notable lights I saw.  In practice it didn't quite work out - I saw some pretty shocking examples that I could not photograph because there was no safe place to stop the car (often, the lights themselves were part of the safety problem).

So the two good examples are from a recently built shopping mall. Although their signage out front is very brightly  lit so that it can be seen from far away by fast moving traffic on a nearby freeway (not pictured), they put a lot of thought into their parking lots. Good full cut-off fittings that illuminate the ground beneath very well, and they're well placed so that there are no shadows in doorways, stairwells, behind walls, etc.

Example of good lighting (closeup) by Allen Versfeld is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Example of good lighting by Allen Versfeld is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Only a kilometer away, I found street lights with bad glare - The photo shows how evenly the road is lit, but the glare is so bad from the lights that potholes and other defects on the road surface become hard to see when moving. Further down the same road is a small shop serving a rural community. In the name of security they have put up a number of floodlights in their parking lot. Unfortunately, every one of these lights shines towards the road and into the eyes of oncoming traffic. Very dangerous. (Bonus point: see if you can find the Stop sign in that image, hidden by the glare!)

Glaring street lights by Allen Versfeld is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Glaring security floodlights by Allen Versfeld is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Finally, even further out from the city, in a bend on a particularly dangerous and badly maintained road, is somebody's home. There is a crime problem in the area, so the owners have obviously gone for the Easy option here: A single enormous floodlight to illuminate the yard. As with the shopping centre above, this means that every passing motorist gets blinded at the worst possible time. And of course, every feature in the garden now casts deep shadows where the bad guys can hide.

Glaring home floodlight by Allen Versfeld is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Citizens push back on LED lighting

If you don't like what you see, why don't you fight it?
If you know there's something wrong why don't you right it?

TLDR: Citizens around the world are raising hell over LED streetlights they don't like. Cities should consult with citizens before undergoing a citywide replacement.

Around the world, people are seeing the LED streetlights that their city is installing, and many don't like it. In this situation, there are two possible responses: living for a few decades with light you don't like, or pushing back against city hall.

In Berlin, citizens challenged the city's intention to switch from gas lighting to LEDs. The city listened, and a compromise was reached: The Technical University of Berlin invented LED lamps that perfectly mimic the color and brightness of gas lamps.

In Davis, California, a citywide replacement was halted when enough citizens complained. The city listened, and set up a test street to let citizens have a choice in which LED lamps should be installed. The citizens chose lamps that were warmer and less bright. In fact, the citizens choice to reduce the brightness below what the city had planned meant that the city ended up saving even more money than it had originally planned!

But cities don't always listen. The mayor of Honolulu is so far ignoring citizen complaints about a plan to install lights similar to the hated ones in Davis. The city also won't consider dimming or turning off lights in low-traffic areas after midnight, despite the fact that a recent study in the UK showed that this has no measurable impact on traffic accidents or crime.

Here is an example of a city official from another city trying to "answer citizen concerns" by telling them how it's going to be, rather than coming up with a solution together:

LED street lighting has a lot of potential benefits. If properly installed, LED streetlights are less likely to shine directly into the sky than older lamps. With careful design, it's possible to avoid illuminating people's bedroom windows. A complete re-design with better uniformity could allow cities to use far less light with equal or greater public acceptance.

Unfortunately, it's also possible to make things worse with LEDs, and one of the aspects that really bothers some people is the color of LED street lights. If you've bought LEDs for your home, you've probably noticed that they have a "color temperature": either a number between 2000-6500K, or perhaps "warm white" or "cold white". As a rule of thumb, the higher the color temperature, the higher the luminous efficiency of the LEDs. But as color temperature increases, LEDs are also generally perceived as harsher, more glaring, and colder. To reduce skyglow and glare, the International Dark-Sky Association recommends using lamps with 3000K or lower.

The lesson from Davis, Berlin, and other cities, is that citizens don't have silently accept what city hall decides is best. If you and your neighbors "raise a little hell", you could end up with lighting that's much better and more comfortable than you have today, with a reduced impact on the environment.

Trooper says:
Nobody's going to help you
You've just gotta stand up alone
But that's not true in this case. Plenty of your neighbors will also share your concern, you can find support from local environmental and city beautification groups, and you can get technical information about what's worked for other cities from the International Dark-Sky Association.

Attractive and effective lighting is something everyone from conservatives to greens can support. So if your city is about to do something stupid, don't be afraid to raise a little hell!

Friday, August 7, 2015

First community experiment!

During the coming week (until August 14), we are running the first in a series of Loss of the Night app community experiments. This month we're asking people to make multiple observations as the stars come out during twilight. Since many observers live in places without much light pollution, twilight offers a way to do an apples-to-apples comparison.

The more people that take part, the more likely that we'll have a result that's statistically interesting. So if you have a clear sky sometime in the next week, try making an 8-star observation after the first star is out but before it's gotten all the way dark. Try to do the measurements quickly, so that the sky doesn't darken too much while you are observing.

I will present the results of the experiment at the webinars in September, but there will probably be a sneak preview for everyone on our mailing list.