IN THE FIELD: The scourge of light pollution

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By Sunday, Jan 3 Environment  7 Comments
A map illustrating light pollution in the continental United States and Central America.

The winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, is already two weeks behind us. I thought it would be a good time to reflect on that darkness which is now diminishing by the day. Of course our inclination this time of year is to extend these too-short days with light. But at night, I find myself craving the darkness that goes along with a cold winter sky. And I resent the intrusion of the floodlight that shines through the thin shades of my windows from the property next door.

Yes, I could get thicker shades, but the floodlight is indicative of a much larger, often ignored issue: light pollution. There’s even a name for that unwanted, unnecessary light: light trespass, and it happens not just from one backyard to the next but on a global scale, as any satellite image of the Earth at night will show.

Light pollution affecting Massachusetts. In the Berkshires, North Adams, Pittsfield and Great Barrington are centers of light pollution.

Light pollution affecting Massachusetts. In the Berkshires, Williamstown, North Adams and Adams, and Pittsfield and Great Barrington are centers of light pollution.

The rate of brightening over U.S. skies is said to be 5-10 percent annually. Dark skies are now a commodity, with national parks and communities receiving a special designation from The International Dark-Sky Association if they meet certain standards of darkness.

The problem with so much light is that no living creatures, ourselves included, have evolved to live in an artificially-extended day. It messes with our circadian rhythms. Too much light at night suppresses our bodies’ production of melatonin, correlating with health issues, higher rates of breast and prostate cancer.

Artificial light disrupts all kinds of biological functions in animals. Frogs, for instance, may curtail their nightly chorus, leading to diminished breeding. Much publicized is how the hatchlings of endangered sea turtles get lost and disoriented from bright beachfront strips, never making it to the ocean. Normally, the just-hatched turtles crawl to the ocean because in the moonlight, it is the brightest thing around, but no longer.

Birds are particularly vulnerable because they migrate under darkness, relying on the presence of the stars and their own magnetic compass. Lights can disorient them and trap them, causing them to expend their precious migration energy trying to navigate out, and sometimes collide with buildings and towers to the tune of perhaps 100 million birds a year in North America.

Migrating birds are said to be adversely affected by light pollution.

Migrating birds are said to be adversely affected by light pollution.

The chances of birds becoming disoriented by lighted structures increases when the night is overcast or foggy, because the stars are obscured. Then, “they will orient to almost any elevated light source to attempt to navigate,” said a Division of Natural Resources spokesman in response to a 2008 incident in West Virginia in which hundreds of songbirds died from slamming into a high school. The night was foggy, and the lighted building, which sat atop a hill, had apparently attracted the birds. When people arrived early that morning, the birds, mostly yellow warblers, were fluttering and banging into the windows.

Even when birds aren’t migrating, they are still susceptible to ambient light pollution. They may start singing well before dawn or lay eggs earlier, causing subtle mismatches in timing. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany stated in 2010, “Our findings show clearly that light pollution influences the timing of breeding behavior, with unknown consequences for bird populations.”

When birds lose the cover of total darkness, they may be more visible to predators. Also, nocturnal hunters like owls, adapted for seeing in the pitch dark, may actually lose their advantage.

This insidious form of pollution is, however, remarkably fixable. It isn’t regulated by the EPA, but many cities are participating in initiatives to shut off lights in tall buildings when not in use.

The International Dark-Sky Association estimates that a third of all lighting in the U.S. is wasted. That’s $2 billion a year, or 14.1 million tons of CO2 per year of wasted fossil fuels, which compounds air and water pollution and climate change, all stressors for birds.

While the Berkshires are relatively dark, many neighborhoods are plagued with bad lighting — excessive, unnecessary lights that shine up and out, creating that coppery haze over populated areas.

Aside from shutting off excessive lights, the easiest fix is simply to install lights that are covered and that point down — the lights shine down on the ground, where they are needed, and stay there, actually increasing visibility because no one is blinded.

One of the joys of living in a largely rural area is supposed to be the darkness of the sky, the sharpness of the stars on a clear winter’s night. We may not need the moon and stars to navigate any more, but there’s something satisfying — and healthy — about sleeping in the dark, letting the moonlight come in.


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7 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Claudia Shuster says:

    I greatly appreciate your excellent articles that enable us to be more thoughtful and appreciative of our cultural opportunities and environment.
    Thank you! I look forward to your continued efforts!

  2. Lydia Littlefield says:

    Thank you, Kateri, for shining light on this problem. This is another of those issues that telescopes in from global to regional to local to individual and out again.
    It has taken decades for the Night Sky Initiative to come to the attention of the public. Slowly, slowly, people are beginning to notice.
    I’m glad you mentioned the simple act people can take: replace outdoor lighting with fixtures that shine down only. Ideally, the light source itself would not be visible, only its light. This will help to reduce light pollution, and will also eradicate another rampant problem: spotlights and glass lanterns announcing a front door you can barely see because the light is so bright that it forces your irises to close to the point of near blindness. We have become accustomed to the aesthetic of glass lanterns as a welcoming touch, yet we neglect to recognize the unwelcoming (and dangerous) experience of approaching a front door with eyes squinting and an arm lifted up to create a visor of protection from the light.
    We are so fortunate to live in such a beautiful place. Imagine if our myth-inspiring, ever-cycling night skies were to be replaced with a dull haze! Our fixation with artificial light keeps us from seeing so much. My dog has taught me to be still under the night sky, flashlight off, and wait. Every night a new world blooms.
    Saw a shooting star last night,
    Lydia

  3. Carol Diehl says:

    Thank you!!! The entire state of Vermont conforms to Dark Sky specifications–why can’t Great Barrington? Especially as we re-evaluate the Main Street lighting choices. I am also told that Nat Grid will install caps on residential street lights if requested.

  4. bob elmendorf says:

    This is an important article and proposes some solutions. I learned a lot from it.

  5. Andrew Blechman says:

    Nothing quite like a dark sky filled with stars to remind us that beauty can be found at all hours.

  6. Carl Stewart says:

    It is not difficult for a town to adopt a lighting bylaw. I was a member of the Town of Alford Planning Board for 19 years and its Chair when we drafted a bylaw to address the issue of the disappearance of the dark sky. This bylaw was unanimously approved by the voters as a warrant at Town Meeting. The bylaw can limit outdoor lighting in several ways; perhaps most importantly by limiting both the brightness and time limit for any lights outside the home’s interior. I believe that a copy of Alford’s zoning bylaw is available on the Town’s website.

    By the way, I am quite sure that Ms. Diehl is incorrect when she says that the State of Vermont conforms to Dark Sky specifications. Some parts of Vermont may have local ordinances that limit outdoor lighting in an attempt to maintain a dark sky but the State as a whole can only say that it wishes to maintain a dark sky. If she believes that such a State law exists, I’d be interested in a statutory reference to the law.

  7. Michelle Loubert says:

    Meanwhile, here in Housatonic, residents in the proximity of the Van Deusenville Road Solar Project are being subjected to steady drilling noise all weekend (began again 7:30 this Sunday morning). People can be as negatively impacted from noise pollution as they are from light pollution. Ironic don’t you think? A project that is suppose to help the environment is actually negatively impacting it and the well-being of the citizens who reside in the area. Let’s hope the drilling ends — not tomorrow or the next day–but NOW.

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