The Dark Side of Artificial Light
There are few wonders in the world that have captivated people since the dawn of civilization. One of these is the night sky, whose stars have been studied since ancient times. Astronomy is considered the ‘first science’ and space is referred to as the ‘last frontier.’ Fascination with the intricacy of stars have always been a source of inspiration for poets, musicians, and artists. In the words of Van Gogh, “the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.
” Sadly, much like many other precious gifts of nature, urbanization is threatening the natural phenomenon of a starry night. In Van Gogh’s time, the night sky was vibrant enough to model for his most famous painting. Today it is estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population has never seen the milky way. (“The Growth of Artificial Light” 1). The cause is light pollution, and this issue is too often overlooked in today’s society. Excessive artificial lighting creates skyglow, a glare that can travel hundreds of miles, making stars impossible to view.
Now, studies are showing that the effects of light pollution are even more devastating than the disappearance of stars. In prehistoric times, light represented safety, used as protection from danger. Today, excessive lighting is the real danger; contributing to poor health, ecological problems and creating unnecessary strains on the economy. In this new age of technology, lights are growing larger and brighter, but at a serious cost. If society is looking for a brighter future, the first step is to turn off the lights.
Picture Las Vegas. Everywhere you look a light is flashing, attempting to capture the darkness and the attention of consumers. There is no question that this is an amazing scene. The problem is, the current method of lighting is senseless, particularly in terms of economics. The goal of extravagant lighting displays is to earn money from potential customers, yet these advertisements cost ridiculous amounts of money, for example, Vegas’s Luxor Beam at $1,224 per day (Knapp 1).
Yes, Vegas is known for it’s brightness, but even lighting across the country used for practical purposes is excessive and misused. One-third of all lighting in the United States is wasted because it misses the target area (Vandernoot 1). Each time a light projects itself up towards the sky rather than the target area, energy is wasted and contributes to light pollution. In the United States, it is currently estimated that 3.5 billion dollars in electrical costs are wasted annually on outdoor lighting, equivalent to 968 million gallons of gasoline (Vandernoot 3).
Imagine every single person in the entire nation paying $11: that amount of money is being spent solely on light that is unused. This does not even take into account money wasted on indoor lighting of homes and businesses. There is no question that excessive lighting is extremely costly to the American economy. The effect of light pollution from the ecological perspective is even more devastating. Darkness is a vital part of an ecosystem on every level, and when it is threatened, the adverse effects are numerous.
Light at inappropriate times is harmful to every species; from insects attracted to streetlights, to migrating birds attracted to illuminated buildings. Newborn sea turtles, for example, require darkness in order to follow moonlight towards the ocean, and risk heading the wrong direction when interrupted by the glow of city lights. When artificial light is introduced to an ecosystem, nocturnal animals are put at greater risk of being eaten, increasing competition for food sources among predators, and disrupting the food chain. The changing length of daylight is an important cue which signals at least 500 North American bird species it is time to migrate (Bogard 151). With overlighting, there is no identifiable absence of light, destroying an important natural cue towards season changes. The Luxor beam in Las Vegas attracts all moth, bat, and owl species within a wide radius, taking away a food source for many animals in the surrounding area.
In a fragile ecosystem, the loss of one species can eliminate a food source for another, the start of a destructive chain reaction. Due to light pollution, entire ecosystem rhythms are shifted, forcing animals to either adapt or risk extinction. The consequences of an excessive amount of artificial light on the Earth’s ecosystem are numerous, with some yet to be discovered. As light pollution causes environmental problems, it also presents serious dangers to human health. It is widely known that sleep is vital to well-being; an issue less discussed is the importance of darkness.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently listed night-shift work as a probable carcinogen based on the higher than average exposure to artificial light (Bogard 93). Sleep disorders are now considered “the most prevalent health concern in the industrialized world” and artificial light is the largest culprit for interrupting the circadian rhythm by causing the brain to assume it is daytime. When exposed to darkness, the body’s pineal gland produces melatonin, a key hormone in preventing cancer. Interrupted by any light, the production of this hormone is stopped (Bogard 104). A streetlight shining through a bedroom window at night is enough to disturb melatonin production, putting many people unknowingly at risk. A study from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that women working a night shift, which gives them more overall exposure to artificial light and less darkness, had “a significantly increased risk of breast cancer” (Bogard 105).
Light pollution, previously a problem for astronomers interested in stars, is actually a health hazard that affects everyone exposed to it. If nothing else convinces the general public that light pollution is a serious problem, the risk of cancer should. In terms of outdoor lighting, the question of safety often arises. Without bright streetlights and security lights, won’t crime increase? According to the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA), this is simply not true (Bogard 67). The majority of streetlights are designed in ways that cause more problems than they solve.
Studies have shown that “light allows criminals to choose their victims, locate escape routes, and see their surroundings,” and motion detectors are much more effective in security (Bogard 71).In Europe, towns experimenting with the reduction of street light use have seen an average of a 50 percent drop in crime (Bogard 72). The amount of light currently used is actually hurting vision rather than helping it. Eyes have built in rods designed to see in the dark that work surprisingly well when uninterrupted by harsh glare. With the overwhelming amount of light currently being used at night, these photoreceptors are not given the chance to work, damaging visibility. Overall, excessive lighting methods are only harming the health and safety of those who are exposed to its effects.
With the increasing number of studies emerging on the dangers of light pollution, it is surprising how little the issue is discussed, particularly its solutions. Fortunately, everyone exposed to electricity has the ability to reduce artificial light in ways that are simple and readily available. First and foremost, when a room is not being occupied, lights should be kept off. Although this seems obvious, much of this problem is rooted in ignorance and forgetfulness. Next, special measures should be taken to reduce excessive lighting at night, which is causing most of the ecological damage and health risks.
In multistory buildings, black-out curtains should be used to keep light in and protect birds or other species from being attracted to them. In terms of outdoor lighting, the wattage of bulbs should be significantly lowered, reducing glare and improving visibility. Special light fixtures or “shields” can be installed that direct lights towards the intended area, preventing wasted light and protecting the sky from sky glow (Eisenberg 2). Installing these fixtures would require funding, but the investment would ultimately save a much larger amount of money due to reduced energy costs. Take for example the city of Calgary, Alberta, whose retrofitted streetlights are expected to save 2 million dollars annually (Copman 2). Shops and restaurants can do their part by turning off their signs upon closing hours, reducing the wattage of their lighting, and installing shields.
In France, new legislation requires all shops and offices to turn their lights off overnight, and lights in shop windows to be turned off after 1 am. In their effort to become a pioneer in fighting pollution, France is expected to save 275,000 tons of CO2 each year (Vandernoot 3). Unnecessary lights such as those used to illuminate plants, fountains and walls at night, roads that receive little to no traffic, or excessive security installments should be removed or replaced. The most important step in fighting light pollution is spreading awareness. This issue has an overwhelming number of adverse effects, yet it is not taken seriously.
The money wasted on light is growing every second these systems are running. Without being replaced, tax dollars will continue to be spent on unused light. The studies showing the correlation between lack of darkness and cancer growth are not being discussed beyond scientists and medical professionals. There must be an increase in media attention devoted to these findings, and people must be motivated to improve or installlighting systems that allow complete darkness at night. The studies done on the devastating effects of light pollution on ecosystems are frequently overshadowed by discussions on global warming and habitat destruction. Ironically, the wasted energy caused by light pollution is one of the worst contributors of greenhouse gases, the cause of global warming.
Furthermore, excessive artificial lighting impeding on ecosystems disrupts important natural rhythms, damaging the quality of the environment in which they live. Light pollution is perhaps the most important cause of many more economic, ecological and health problems, yet people are not being encouraged to address the issue.Nonprofits such as the International Dark Sky Association and the National Park Service are working to raise awareness of this global problem, but the solutions must be brought to the attention of the general public and enforced by legislation if changes are to be made. With less overall light, everyone would reap the rewards of a mutually beneficial situation. Shops, offices, and businesses would see a decrease in their electric bills, as well as people who rethink their lighting at home. Billions of dollars would be saved in just the United States alone.
With less fossil fuels being released, air quality would significantly improve, helping to fight the adverse effects of climate change. Animals would have their habitats back, undisturbed by flashing signs and excessive street lights. Ending light pollution would likely cause a significant drop in cancer, sleep disorders, obesity, heart problems and all other health issues related to lack of sleep. Studies suggest that crime levels would go down with improved visibility, making the United States a safer place to live. With rapid urbanization dulling the skies gradually over the years, many living in urban communities are not aware what they are missing. Seeing the stars on a clear night is a human birthright, something everyone should experience.
In the words of Bogard, “The night is beautiful, amazing and filled with wonder. What’s the value of standing under the galaxy and wondering who you are and what your life is about? Losing it has an enormous cost to our souls and spirits” (320). Looking into the night sky gives the opportunity to look back in time, and it’s beauty gives a peace of mind perfect for pondering the future. The harsh glare of a streetlight is unmatched to the timeless allure of a starry night. If looking to a brighter future, darkness is a gift that should be embraced, not destroyed.