Light pollution threatens Chile’s dark skies

It seems nothing can escape the inexorable spread of light pollution not even the giant telescopes probing the heavens above northern Chile, a region whose pristine dark skies, long considered a paradise for astronomers, are under increasing threat.

The Atacama desert, 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) north of the capital Santiago, provides ideal conditions where astronomers study the stars in darkness so profound they appear like diamonds on velvet.

Scientists estimate that by 2020, Chile — a critically important country for optical and radio astronomy — will host 70 percent of the globe’s astronomical infrastructure.

But the ever-expanding use of cheap light-emitting diode (LED) lighting in the booming South American country is starting to concern astronomers desperately trying to safeguard some of the world’s darkest skies.

“Unfortunately, as we have more and more white lights, the deterioration of the skies has increased by up to 30 percent compared to the end of the last decade,” said scientist Pedro Sanhueza.

Chile takes the problem of light pollution so seriously that Sanhueza heads up an organization called the Office for the Protection of Quality of the Sky (OPCC).

Its main task is to make the people of northern Chile aware of the particularly high night-sky quality and the negative impacts of light pollution.

Sanhueza says that though the quality is good, the sky over northern Chile is becoming “an area of risk,” threatening the profound nocturnal darkness required for the study of phenomena such as solar flares, planetary nebulae, black holes and supernovas.

Fueling the threat, he adds, are communities such as Antofagasta, Coquimbo and La Serena, where LED lights are increasingly used in homes, streetlights, store signs and billboards.

A study published in December in the journal Science Advances has shown that global lighting has increased in both quantity and intensity by about 2 percent per year from 2012 to 2016.

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