Since the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) was founded in 1988 to educate and advocate about light pollution, awareness and concern has spread globally. Earth’s artificially lit surface …
Since the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) was founded in 1988 to educate and advocate about light pollution, awareness and concern has spread globally. Earth’s artificially lit surface area growing by two-percent a year. Three in five Europeans and four in five North Americans live under skies too light-swamped to be able to see the Milky Way, and 99-percent of them do not experience a natural night. Most children born today will never be able to see the Milky Way if we don’t make changes.
The good news is that unlike many issues facing the world today, light pollution is something we can understand and manage, and researchers contend that we can reduce light pollution without much sacrifice. Some even say we can reverse the increase within a decade.
Astronomer Carl Sagan and cosmologist Brian Swimme popularized understanding of our cosmos, telling us, “We are stardust,” and they didn’t just mean metaphorically. The death of stars (supernovas) enabled the cooling of temperatures essential to creating carbon atoms and heavier elements which is the stuff we, and all life, are made of. Not similar elements, but the same elements present then. So, when we gaze in wonder at the stars, the sense of connection is not just a trick of our imagination. We need to be able to see and feel that.
Light pollution includes several types. Light shining upward causes “sky glow” obscuring the stars and creating perpetual twilight. “Light trespass” is lights shining into your yard or house from neighbors or commercial lighting. “Glare” is the light shining in your eyes. “Clutter” is bright, confusing, and excessive groupings of light sources. The wasted energy and the resources used to make energy to produce this “stray” light could power 8 million homes every year. Streetlights are responsible for most of the upward shining light, which can be reduced with fixtures directing the light down and with bulbs that have warm, amber light rather than cool, blue light.
The Harvard Medical School Health Letter explains that not all colors of light have the same effect. Blue wavelengths, which are more predominant in computer and TV screens as well as energy-efficient fluorescent and LED lighting, boost attention, reaction times and mood; this is beneficial during the day but disruptive at night. Blue-tinged light is brighter and more disruptive to most animals (including humans) at night as well as to astronomical observatories. Bluer, shorter wavelength photons scatter more readily in the air, creating a localized fog of light.
Light pollution interferes with living eco systems, the predictable rhythms of day and night that are encoded in the DNA of all plants and animals. Disturbance of the daily cycles of light and dark can affect behaviors such as reproduction, nourishment, sleep, and protection from predators. Sea turtles lose their way to the sea. Migrating birds’ seasonal cycles are altered, affecting breeding and nesting. They navigate by moonlight and starlight and may veer off course into dangerous urban or wilderness landscapes. Many die striking buildings. Nocturnal animals depend on darkness for hunting and cover. Researcher Christopher Kyba says, “Near cities cloudy skies are hundreds or even thousands of times brighter than they were 200 years ago, and we are only beginning to learn what a drastic effect this has had on nocturnal ecology.” The health of the planet depends on healthy populations of insects and plants whose cycles are also disturbed.
Research shows that exposure to artificial light does suppress secretion of the hormone melatonin that influences circadian rhythms, our biological clocks. Reduced melatonin may contribute to the causation of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression.
People are advised to get lots of natural light, avoid electronic screens two to three hours before bedtime and, with intense exposure such as on a night shift, to wear special glasses that block blue light. Holistic health practitioners advise that for our physical, mental and spiritual well-being, we live within the natural rhythms of day and night as much as possible just as we did prior to the invention of electricity. Sleep studies have shown that people get a deeper, more restful sleep with complete darkness.
Astronomer David Crawford and Dr. Tim Hunter formed the International Dark-Sky Association in 1988 in Tucson, Ariz., due to their concern about light pollution. Flagstaff, Ariz., put the world’s first light pollution ordinance on the books in 1958 and became the first international dark sky community in 2001. Several observatories in the area house a thriving research community, long dedicated to preserving the dark skies. As of January 2022, there are 195 International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) in the world comprised of categories with different parameters: International Dark Sky Communities, Parks, Reserves, Sanctuaries, and Urban places. In 2020, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness became an IDS Sanctuary, and Voyageurs National Park became an IDS Park.
So how do we bring about change? Here are some actions being taken: Campaigns to turn off the lights during bird migrations. In Dallas and Houston, more than 100 downtown buildings dimmed their lights. In France bars and businesses are prohibited from illuminating decorative lights and signs at night. Germany developed a legal action plan to reverse insect declines which includes controlling light pollution a major goal. LED manufacturers are adding dark-sky-friendly, downward-pointing, long-wavelength fixtures to the market. Holker Lab in Berlin has developed prototype lights that don’t emit the wave-lengths disruptive to most insects.
Individuals can follow these guidelines to minimize the harmful effects of light pollution personally and promote them in their community and region. Lighting should only be on when needed, only light the area that needs it, be no brighter than necessary, minimize blue light emissions, eliminate upward-directed light, and keep blinds drawn to keep light inside.
Go to darksky.org for a fascinating wealth of information and amazing photographs. The IDA is a resource for lighting management plans and free or low-cost eco-friendly lighting that minimizes glare, reduces light trespass, and protects the night sky. If you are interested in joining some local residents in promoting our region as a dark sky place, contact me through the Timberjay office.
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