Leave Great Basin in the dark
Here’s a bright idea: Turn off the lights and look up.
Unfortunately, light pollution is a growing problem in the United States, so you may not see much.
“People are from cities,” says Dr. Tyler Nordgren, an astronomy professor at the University of Redlands. “Almost nobody today sees a natural night sky the way it used to be seen.” There’s more at stake than missing out on a few extra constellations; light pollution also disrupts the lives of migratory and nocturnal animals such as birds and bats. Some studies suggest that we humans need naturally dark skies to keep certain chemicals and hormones at healthy levels.
To savor the stars this summer — and learn how you can keep them shining — head for Great Basin National Park. Home to one of the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states, Great Basin is the ideal place to set up camp for the third annual Astronomy Festival, June 14-16. It includes workshops, solar viewing sessions and, of course, lots of stargazing.
“Great Basin is the picture-perfect example of all the ways in which people can experience astronomy when they visit a national park,” Nordgren says. Its distance from light-drenched cities, high altitude and minimal humidity make viewing conditions ideal.
If you don’t know Canis Major from Cassiopeia, don’t worry. The event is geared toward those unfamiliar with the night sky. “Most people have never looked through a telescope before, and here they can do it in one of the darkest places in the United States,” says Kelly Carroll, a Great Basin park ranger and festival coordinator. (They’ve even got the telescopes covered.)
[HEAR MORE: Learn about a new species of shrimp discovered in Great Basin on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]
Most festivalgoers aren’t going to buy a telescope when they get home, but Carroll hopes they’ll take home a new respect for the night sky. “It’s important they realize that a dark sky is a resource that needs to be protected just like the wildlife and landscape,” he says. But it’s also a free souvenir. “The only thing they can take home from the national park is the night sky. All they have to do is turn off the lights.” What a brilliant idea, indeed. — JoAnna Haugen
The Great 2012 Astronomy Festival takes place June 14-16 in Great Basin National Park. It has first-come-first-served campgrounds, but if you arrive on Thursday, you should have no problem securing a spot. Ely is the closest large town with hotels, about 80 miles away. Info: nps.gov
Community wash the block
Are your neighborhood’s sidewalks too narrow? Your strip mall storefronts shuttered? Can your street use some more trees? You could sit around and wish it were better — or you can do what Build a Greener Block did last month on the 1042 block of Main Street. The grassroots group staged an instant neighborhood rehab on the block sent reeling when a NV Energy transformer exploded in July 2010, damaging nearby shops and ultimately putting several out of business. The April 28-29 event saw portions of Main Street alive with music, classes, pop-up cafes and restaurants with a green ethic — think solar power, chalk-drawn bike lanes and eco-friendly paint.
“I call it bootleg urban planning,” says Brandon Wiegand, founding member of Build a Greener Block. A commercial real estate agent by day, he’d cringe when he saw that dying block of Main Street. “But like a lot of people, I was guilty of waiting for someone else to come along and do something about it.” Build a Greener Block was born.
[HEAR MORE: Learn how to build a greener block on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]
The group’s green team leader Ciara Byrne adds, “We want to show the community how people can improve their neighborhoods — and do it in the most sustainable way possible.”
Their goal is to organize their pop-up events quarterly, targeting a different Vegas ’hood. They’re working on an instruction manual, too, in the form of a film that other would-be community rehabbers can use in their own backyards. Info: greenerblocks.com. — Andrew Kiraly