When was the last time you stood under the naked skies and gazed at the stars? How often does this happen to you? Let me guess, not too often? Why?
Among other reasons,our skies have turned into a haze of light. And the stars? We don’t see them anymore, at least not so often.
This is due to Light Pollution – any type of artificial light that shines outward and upward instead of downward, where it is actually needed. One might wonder how could this be pollution and how serious could it be, but it is an increasingly growing problem, whose real consequences we are only beginning to understand.
Nowadays, the night skies over most of the developed world, especially the USA, Europe and Japan, are a cloud of light. In fact, people in about a third of the USA, half of Europe and all of Japan cannot see the Milky Way at night.
Clearly, humans are not nocturnal creatures, but our desire to modify our surroundings and transform the natural state of things is a little frightening. By altering the natural day-night circle, we are changing more than we initially wanted.
Light pollution is greatly affecting animals’ reproduction, feeding and migration.
Birds, for example, react to light as metal to magnet. They tend to gather around light objects and fly in circle around them. This has become an issue, since we have thousands of brightly lit skyscrapers, that attract birds in a flying circle until they drop down with exhaustion. In addition, birds use light and darkness for guidance in their migration. Normally, longer days are associated with opportunity for feeding and longer nights are associated with winter time. When we light up the night sky, we fool the populations of birds into thinking there is a longer day. Consequently, they are able to feed more and reach the needed amount of body fat quicker. Thus, they leave for they migration route sooner than required for their survival. The real problem is that birds would leave before cold weather has set in and come back the following year before the warm weather has created good living conditions for their populations.
Yet another example, of how light pollution affects birds is their singing in unusual times.
Sea turtles also suffer the effects of light pollution. The female sea turtles naturally look for dark beaches to lay their eggs. Their hatchlings are then born with the instinct to move towards the reflective (therefore, brighter) surface of the water. However, the brightly lit cities and/or highways behind the beach line confuse the little hatchlings, who end up traveling towards that brightness and never reach the water, their natural habitat. In Florida, alone, the number of hatchlings that survive decreases with hundreds of thousands each year.
Frogs and toads are species with nighttime breeding rituals. Very often, the ponds and swamps they inhabit are located near bright lit highways or cities, so that these little earthlings never have the darkness necessary for their breeding practices.
Other examples of how our light pollution affects living forms are the many nocturnal creatures that feed in the darkness of the night. For those, it is increasingly difficult to find the darkness, so crucial for their survival. Insects, we all have notices, tend to cluster around streetlights. Therefore, it is increasingly difficult for nocturnal bats to feed and their populations suffer.
While one might not be particularly worried about the life of a frog, or a bat, in this case we are talking about whole populations of specie, whose numbers are decreasing because we have decided to modify the natural world and order of things. Needless to say, change in a single species can initiate a number of other changes in the biosphere. These changes might eventually affect us in a way we would not like. Maybe we ought to consider the big picture. After all, we are earthlings as well and we are also affected by the same natural principles that guide birds and toads.
The change and constant rotation of the day and the night governs our Circadian rhythms. In humans, the Circadian rhythm lasts approximately 24 hours and directs sleep and waking, core body temperature and hormonal levels.
Recent research (Kloog et al.) indicates that excessive exposure to artificial light at night may be a risk factor for breast cancer in women. These studies do not imply causation, only correlation, but they certainly demonstrate there are many things we do not understand yet. Our human species has evolved in a world where a day was followed by a night. All of a sudden, people were forced to work night shifts or simply live amidst the bright neon cities. Who knows how our bodies will react to this sudden change? What are we experimenting with? Is it not ourselves?
I would be an advocate of the bright night if we actually needed the light. Most of the time, however, this is not the case. Often, it is simply useless, aimless lighting! Office buildings with no businesses open during the night certainly do not need all their cubicles brightly lit, do they? The office building right next to my apartment building shines bright 24 hours, every day of the year, without a single soul inside. Who needs all of this light? And why waste all of this electricity? This is not only useless, this is bothering me and all the other people who cannot make their bedrooms dark enough to get a good night’s sleep.
One would think that in these hard times of economic and environmental challenges we would be more cautious not to waste as much energy. Yet, we indulge in our wasteful habits and cast light where we don’t even need it. The International Dark-Sky Association claims that about a third of outdoor lighting is wasted due to ineffective light fixtures. In the USA alone, the annual cost for wasted/ misdirected light costs $10 billion. This is a very simple equation – wasted light is wasted energy and money.
Replacing the fixtures in public spaces with dark-sky-friendly fixtures can surely be a strain on the budget. Between 2002 and 2005 the Canadian city of Calgary has replaced its older, drop-lens streetlights with flat-lens night-sky friendly fixtures (Brad Scriber, Nightlight Savings Time). This enormous project of replacing 37, 000 lights was a major investment. But with $1.7 million in annual energy savings, the project is expected to pay for itself by 2012.
“Of all the pollutions we face, light pollution is perhaps the most easily remedied“
~Verlyn Klinkenborg, The National Geographic
There is a lot we can do!
We can update existing fixtures with new designs that reduce glare and focus light on the ground, instead of outwards and upwards. When buying light fixtures we can look for the light-fixture seal of approval by the International Dark-Sky Association. We can install motion-activated lights for parks, parking lots, building and so on. Switch off the lights when we don’t need them! Try to eliminate aimless lighting! Care! Begin to change our habits and not waste! And step by step we might all be able to see the stars again.
Until then, starry nights will be “rare and exotic skyscapes for many” (Tamie R. Smith). If you would like to plan a dark-sky vacation, these are the spots that offer excellent conditions for stargazing: Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada; Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah; Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania; Acadia National Park, Maine.
That is correct, these days, we need a National Park with its laws and regulations in order to gaze at the stars. I am quite sure, our ancestors did not envision the problems we are having today.
Have a starry night!