Lighting Up the Sky

It’s a Waste

There’s a wonderful video splashed across the Web that shows the massive amount of light that human beings are pumping up to the sky. It’s startling to see because it’s from space, from the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP).  This satellite has a sensor onboard that lets it look at our planet during the nighttime hours, and the view is startling. Light is splashed across the surface, showing clearly where we live, work, and travel.

I’m jazzed about this latest release from NASA because I’ve been working on a short video for the International Dark-Sky Association called Losing the Dark.  It is being produced for use in planetariums and also in flat-screen theaters. In a few short minutes it details the problems of light pollution, the costs, and the very simple steps we can all take to mitigate the unneeded use of light at night.  The video is in the final stages of completion and should be available early next year free of charge for theaters and anyone who want to use it in outreach.

I was surprised and very pleased to learn last month that the IDA has given me (and my company) an award for our work. I’m very proud to announce that I’m now a “Dark Sky Defender”. In that role, I plan to continue sharing the news about how to safely light our communities!

As a start, here’s NASA’s video, just to impress on your mind the magnitude of humanity’s unanticipated splash to the stars. Click on the image to start the movie. (You can also view it and a larger story about the image here.)

The United States at night. Courtesy NASA/GSFC. (Click on image to see the video.)

This is light pollution as seen from space, folks. It may look pretty, but the price we’re paying for it is not. It costs money to burn the fuel to turn on all those lights. In many places, that fuel is fossil fuel, with its attendant environmental risks.

It also costs us in terms of health for every living thing on this planet. Humans are affected by constant exposure to light at night. Migratory animals die each year due to the confusion brought on by improper lighting practices. This wildlife kill affects everything from birds to sea turtles to insects to marine life. It turns out that life needs regular periods of darkness for good health.

Last, but not least, light pollution wipes out our view of the night sky. There are people in cities who don’t even know what the Milky Way looks like, and may only see a few bright stars and planets in their night skies. For astronomers doing research, light pollution can be catastrophic. There are only a few places left on Earth where an observatory isn’t encroached on by unnecessary lights.

Of course, there’s no question that we need light at night. Nobody’s saying that we should turn off all the lights.  What we are saying is learn to use light properly, just like any other tool that makes our lives easier.

Wise lighting begins at home and in our communities, with assessing the kinds of lights we use for security. Those lights should be pointed down, not up. Same is true of parking lots and other lit-up spaces in our communities. We can also figure out how to cut down the numbers of lights we use and when we use them. For example, there’s no excuse for pointing lights UP at buildings at night. Lighting up a church steeple, or the side of a shopping center, or a tall office building just to show off the name or whatever message it is the building’s owners are trying to send is just no longer cool. Not when we can all save money by using light properly (and find other, better uses for that money saved in our families and communities).

Those are just a few examples of needless light waste. You can find many more around your community.  Point out to those building owners just how much less it would cost them to install full cutoff fixtures shining directly ON their signs and not splashing needlessly up to the sky.  A lot of migrating birds and other animals — not to mention the building neighbors — would thank them for the welcome gift of peaceful darkness overhead (and not shining directly in nearby windows).

In the end, light pollution mitigation is just common sense.

Want to know more about the effects of light pollution and how to wisely use light?  Visit the IDA’s website — become a dark sky defender in your community!


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