With that growth in numbers has been an inexorable spread of various kinds of pollution. When people think of pollution, though, they usually think in terms of toxic chemicals in rivers, trash in the seas and on land or carbon monoxide etc. in the air. But there’s another kind of pollution. Light pollution: that is, all of the lighting we use to be able to carry on our business out-of-doors after the sun goes down, and/or for security reasons. And as our population continues to grow, so does light pollution. Is it important? Most definitely. No species on earth today evolved with artificial lighting, thus adaptations to it does not exist in our genes. And when something new is suddenly introduced to us animals or the environment, it can wreak havoc on natural systems.
I used to live in a house in a small town with moderate lighting and enjoyed some star gazing in my back yard. Then an auto dealership took over an empty lot on the other side of my fence and soon night was turned to day as the salesman installed a whole bunch of high intensity lights that not only lit up his lot, but also the inside of my, and other surrounding homes. To walk outside at night was to be blinded. I politely offered to make and install some shields for him free of charge to be attached above each light which would not diminish their power but keep them shining only on his lot. Unfortunately, he wasn’t interested; he was afraid this small courtesy might impact his sales somehow. Finally I had to move.
What is the effect of all of this artificial lighting on us biological organisms and ecosystems? A new study, published in Science Advances recently made headlines. Here are some selected comments about it:
“The Milky Way’s luminous glow has inspired stories, paintings, songs, and poems for centuries: Japanese and Chinese folklore describe it as a river separating two lovers; in Greek legend, it is the spilled breast milk of the goddess Hera. Now, however, one-third of people cannot see Earth’s galaxy at night because of artificial lighting, which affects nearly 80% of the globe. The findings, part of a new atlas of worldwide light pollution, suggest that the problem is poised to get worse without regulatory action.
“This atlas is really a useful communications tool to open everybody’s eyes,” says Travis Longcore, a spatial scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Longcore studies urban ecology, and was not involved in the study. “What a horrible thing to do to us as a species, to live in permanent twilight and never be able to see the stars.”….
“Such pollution affects more than just our view of the Milky Way. Strong artificial lighting at night can cause birds to migrate at the wrong time of season, deter nighttime pollinators like bats, disrupt underwater ecosystems, and even decrease melatonin production in humans, leading to disrupted sleep cycles and increased risk of some cancers. And these detrimental effects can persist even after the lights have been dimmed or removed.”
“In some locations including Singapore, inhabitants never experience full night — in fact, the researchers said in press materials, skies are so bright over most of that population that their eyes never fully adapt to night vision….
“The disturbing part is, it doesn’t have to be like this,” Wainscoat said. “There’s a tremendous amount of irresponsible lighting throughout the world. It’s all based on money and profit, and it’s not based on what’s right for the environment.”….
“Most of the kids that are born in the states and in Europe have no idea what they’re missing, and they’ll never have that experience of being overwhelmed and inspired,” he added. “That’s hard to put a price tag on, but it’s still a big problem.”
Here’s an important point:
“It’s way too easy, with light pollution, to imagine that things aren’t so bad,” Bogard said. “It still gets dark at night, [or] in the city it’s bright, but if you get out into the country, it’s still dark. And I think what Fabio’s map shows is that neither of those things is true.”
One may not realize how lit up the night sky really is because when looking at it while in the city, the brightness of the lights will make the dark look darker in comparison. But can you see more than a handful of stars? Now travel 10 or 20 miles away from the city lights and look back. You should be able to begin to discern that bright glow (and see more stars). To see the Milky Way though, you’ll have to travel even further. Looking back, you’ll discover in amazement that cityglow can light up the entire horizon.
Here’s a video to give you an idea of what we are doing to the night.
If you are interested in helping science in a cataloging of night light with a view to one day reversing this excess here is a volunteer site.
“Cities at Night is a citizen science project whose aim is to creat a Google maps style map of the world using night photographs taken by astronauts on the ISS. We are using color pictures with 10 times more resolution than it was available for the pulic so far. The project will classify and calibrate them for science research purposes. Help us!!!”
Darksky.org is a central hub of information.
For those of you who have yet to experience the Milky Way, a photo (click to enlarge):