We’re a Dark Sky Community
Updated: Feb 8
Learn how you can keep our skies dark, sparkley & clear.
By Kevin White, Public Program Supervisor for Lowell Observatory
In 1958, Northern Arizona became the birthplace of a movement that has spread across the world: the movement to preserve our connection with the night sky.
Flagstaff and Northern Arizona have long been at the forefront of astronomy, both professional and amateur. Flagstaff was once nicknamed the “Skylight City” because of its spectacular view of the night sky. These clear skies were a major part of what brought Percival Lowell to Flagstaff to found Lowell Observatory, and of what brought the U.S. Naval Observatory to Flagstaff as well. Flagstaff’s high elevation and dry climate make it a nearly ideal place for stargazing. Even today, on a clear summer night, from many parts of Flagstaff one can see the Milky Way, a rare and special privilege for denizens of a city of its size.
Residents of Northern Arizona are afforded such spectacular stargazing due to efforts across our community. A large part of these efforts are Flagstaff’s lighting ordinances, which are designed to both preserve the natural sky as a source of wonder for Northern Arizona’s residents and visitors, and to permit cutting edge research for the astronomers who work here. In 1957, Lowell Observatory acquired the 69 inch Perkins Telescope. A telescope this powerful could only realize its full potential under skies minimally polluted by city lights. Even at the time, Lowell Observatory’s Mars Hill campus next to downtown Flagstaff was inadequate to the task, so Lowell Observatory placed the telescope on Anderson Mesa near Lake Mary, a location used for astronomical research to this day. Even at this more remote site, however, there were still concerns. A single searchlight could ruin the sky for sensitive observations for miles around. So Lowell Observatory astronomers petitioned Flagstaff’s City Council to enact a regulation to prevent searchlights from interfering with their work. Such an ordinance was enacted in 1958. While there was little fanfare at the time, in retrospect it was a momentous event: the world’s first ordinance to protect a dark, natural sky.
In the years since then, Flagstaff and Coconino County have expanded their efforts to protect the wonders of our natural skies. For example, street lights are shaded so that their lights are directed down, and are built to shine in a color that is minimally obtrusive for research and stargazing. Dark sky protection must be balanced with safety and commercial interests, but using proper methods and lighting types we can maintain a spectacular sky while still meeting our community’s lighting needs. Many cities, counties, and regions all over the world have followed Flagstaff’s example and adopted ordinances to help preserve a natural sky. These range from our neighbors in Arizona like Sedona and Tucson, to major metropolitan areas like San Diego County, to communities around the globe like Bisei Town in Japan and Møn in Denmark.
In 1991, Flagstaff was designated the first International Dark Sky City by the International Dark-Sky Association, an organization dedicated to promoting natural, non-light-polluted skies all over the world. International Dark Sky cities are designated as such to recognize exceptional work in preserving or recovering dark skies. Flagstaff remains a world leader in this regard
You can help keep our skies beautiful for all of Northern Arizona’s residents and visitors. If you keep the tops of your lights properly shaded, more of the light will stay near the ground, where it is needed, rather than go upwards where it is wasted and pollutes the natural sky. To be extra sure of the effectiveness of the light’s direction, check for the International Dark-Sky Association’s (IDA’s) seal of approval on the light. If you don’t use more light than you need, you can actually improve visibility by reducing glare, reduce energy costs, and also help keep the night sky closer to its natural state. Using lights only in the times and places that they’re needed will also save energy and help preserve a natural sky. Timers and motion sensors are invaluable aids for this, but simply placing lights thoughtfully and remembering to turn them off when they are not in use is also effective. Working together, we can maintain Flagstaff’s access to the incredible natural wonder of the night sky, and let it continue to live up to its old nickname of the Skylight City.