Arizona’s dark skies are good for stargazing and your health. Here’s how

Mark Johnston, a NASA Solar System Ambassador and self-proclaimed "space nerd," moved to Scottsdale in 1990 for a job opportunity. The job brought him here, but the night sky made him stay.

“I do a lot of international travel events in different countries, and I'm always really happy to come back to Scottsdale,” Johnston said. “For an astronomer, it's a great place to live. Most nights have clear skies and not much light pollution.”

Johnston is far from the only astronomer drawn to Arizona. The state offers the most observatories of any state and the highest number of dark sky sites, and even in winter when other parts of the country get pounded by rain, sleet, and snow, most nights provide clear skies, all ideal for star gazing.

In one remote valley of southeast Arizona, the nearest grocery store is 68 miles away and the closest bar is an hour’s drive. But for residents of Arizona Sky Village, the remoteness is part of the draw.

Amateur astronomers and those who simply enjoy stargazing take up residence in homes built with observatories on the end of them. The community must adhere to strict light rules to keep light pollution at its lowest.

Outdoor lights are completely prohibited — including car headlights. Black-out curtains are mandatory on every window in each home, and even light filtering through the domes over telescopes is not allowed.

It is here in Arizona where people can find the complete inky darkness of space, and take in the breathtaking views of the moon and all that lies beyond: stars, planets, nebula and even galaxies.

Arizona Sky Village is what astronomers call a Dark Sky City, one of more than 20 such places across the state. Flagstaff was named the world’s first International Dark Sky City in 2001.

Quality of life is lost when light pollution is taking over the globe, argues Kevin Schindler, historian and public information officer for Lowell Observatory, making Dark Sky Cities evermore important.

“We live in this world of staring at phones and artificial intelligence life, and we're losing connection to the universe,” Schindler said. “80% of the population of the world lives in a place where you can't see the Milky Way galaxy and it means that we are losing a connection to the universe around us.”

Light pollution’s effects on life

That glow that hovers over the city and creeps out across the land is not a warm and inviting radiance. Instead, environment experts say it is an excessive and unwanted use of artificial light, affecting humans, wildlife, and the climate.

Light pollution, while generally considered simply a nuisance for viewing the night sky, can be devastating, affecting both human and animals’ health, as well as the environment.

Humans and animals depend on their circadian rhythm — the physical, mental, and behavioral changes experienced over a 24-hour cycle — over which light has the biggest influence. Artificial light disrupts the natural body rhythm, resulting in headaches, increased stress and anxiety, fatigue, sleep deprivation and a slew of other health issues.

A global cancer study found that artificial nocturnal light increases the risk of all forms of cancer, including breast, prostate, lung and colorectal.

With the new scientific findings about the adverse health risks of light pollution, even the American Medical Association is advocating for the control and reduction of artificial light.

Blue light is especially harmful, as it has been proven to significantly reduce melatonin production in the body, and it's found in technologies that most people use frequently every day, such as cell phones, laptops and LEDs.

Animals similarly suffer the harm of light pollution. According to research scientist Christopher Kyba, for nocturnal animals “the introduction of artificial light probably represents the most drastic change human beings have made to their environment.”

Like humans, animals rely on their circadian rhythm for a balanced life, and studies show that an excess of artificial light is adversely affecting wake-sleep habits, migration patterns, reproduction and more.

“Predators use light to hunt, and prey species use darkness as cover,” Kyba explains. “Near cities, cloudy skies are now hundreds or even thousands of times brighter than they were 200 years ago. We are only beginning to learn what a drastic effect this has had on nocturnal ecology.”

Sea turtles hatch at night along the beach but use moonlight to direct them to the water. Because the sky glow — the halo of light surrounding cities from artificial light sources — is stronger than the reflection of the moon and stars on the ocean’s surface, the sea turtles are drawn inward to the land along coastal cities.

Studies show that light pollution may even drive a surge of algae bloom, risking the lives of fish and other aquatic ecosystems as well.

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How Arizona's skies lure stargazers

Devoted, lifelong astronomers and hobbyists are drawn to Arizona’s skies to gaze upward and revel in what lies beyond.

Heading south from Phoenix, telescopes offer views at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Traveling a bit to the east from Kitt Peak, at Mount Graham International Observatory, the Vatican has an operational observatory. Sitting atop Mount Lemmon is Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter Observatory, owned and operated by the University of Arizona, but open for public tours and educational events.

Perhaps the most well-known place in Arizona for astronomers is Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. This non-profit research institution is the discovery place of Pluto in 1930. The city was named the world’s first International Dark Sky City, and the light pollution is at a minimum, giving astronomers the best chance to discover awe-inspiring objects in the dark sky.

“You can stand in downtown Flagstaff and see the center of the Milky Way,” Lowell Observatory’s Schindler said. “(Dark Sky Cities) give us the opportunity to reconnect with the universe and all it has to offer.

Most observatories sit on top of mountains, or at higher elevations. While they typically offer a combination of dark skies and clear nights, there is another reason telescopes are set up in these areas.

“You want to be above a lot of the air that creates turbulence and distorts your image when taking pictures or observing objects,” Johnston said. “We also want dry air — which Arizona has no lack of — because it does not mess with the view of what lies in the night sky.”

How to get started

For those who are inclined to do more than just stargaze, Johnston has some tips on getting started.

Getting away from the city lights is the first step, according to Johnston. He recommends being at least 30 minutes away, but really going as far away from light pollution as time allows you to get.

When it comes time to buy a telescope, it's not as scary as it sounds.

“The technology has improved dramatically in a short period of time, so it can be overwhelming,” Johnston admits. “But I would encourage people to find local astronomy clubs in your area where they have public viewing nights for free.”

Astronomers set up their different telescopes and allow people to look through them, ask questions, and learn about what they are seeing through the telescope, as well as the technology itself.

“Start with something that is not too complicated for you, but do your research and ask experts your questions,” Johnston advises. “Using their telescopes at free viewing events and being able to pick their brain is incredibly helpful.”

Between the dry air, dark and clear skies, and number of observatories and Dark Sky Cities and sites Arizona has to offer, experienced astronomers and hobbyists have several opportunities of viewing the the night sky.

Scottsdale, under the direction of Johnston, offers Astronomy Evenings, where he identifies the objects visible in the night sky while giving a constant rundown of what it is everyone is looking at, as well as answering questions from the group.

Upcoming dates for these nights are Feb. 2 and 6:30 p.m. and March 1 and 7 p.m.

Registration begins two weeks before the event takes place. To register, go online to Scottsdale online activity registration. For more information, visit City of Scottsdale's website, or call 480-312-0990.

Caralin Nunes writes about weather and related topics for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Email her with story tips at

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Astronomers flock to Arizona for the dark and clear skies