Sitting on the beach in Bimini, in the Bahamas, if you were to look North after sunset, there is a constant glow on the horizon. No, it is not a mysterious effect of the Bermuda Triangle: it’s the lights of Miami. Driving through the Nevada desert, Vegas can be seen from miles at night, the glow visible long before you reach the city. Many people find this beautiful, but they are overlooking something. While artificial outdoor lighting has many benefits, when it become inefficient, annoying, or unnecessary, it becomes light pollution.
The Ecological Effects
The environmental effects of light pollution are well documented. Light impacts wetlands, confuses migratory birds, and can lead baby sea turtles away from the ocean rather than towards it.
More than just birds and amphibians are affected though: plants also suffer from light confusion, and may not change as readily with the seasons in areas where artificial light extends the day.
Nocturnal animals and insects behavior patterns and habitat are greatly affected by artificial light as well. They are often displaced or confused, impacting predators and the balance of the ecosystem.
Of course, one of the largest ecological concerns is excessive energy consumption. Leaving the lights on in your home had notable effect, but leaving them on in an entire city comes with a huge financial and environmental impact.
The most obvious human health effect of light pollution is sleep disorders. The correlation between these and artificial light are easy to establish. But there are more issues than that.
As early as 2008, in Chronobiology International. studies in Israel used satellite photos of 147 cities to document artificial light at night, then overlaid the photos with a map showing the distribution of breast cancer cases. The study showed a significant correlation between these cases and the amount of artificial light at night.
SImilar studies involving nurses who work rotating night shifts show similar correlations. This may or may not be related to studies that show levels of melatonin are also affected by exposure to artificial light at night, which seems to slow its production.
Travis Longcore, co-editor of Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting and a research associate professor at the University of Southern California Center for Sustainable Cities, suggests two ways outdoor light pollution may contribute to artificial light–associated health effects in humans. “From a human health perspective, it seems that we are concerned with whatever increases artificial light exposure indoors at night,” he says. “The effect of outdoor lighting on indoor exposure could be either direct or indirect. In the direct impact scenario, the artificial light from outside reaches people inside at night at levels that affect production of hormones. In an indirect impact it would disturb people inside, who then turn on lights and expose themselves to more light.”
With all the other concerns about climate change, fossil fuels, automobile and industry pollution, and overconsumption and creation of waste, sometimes the impact of light pollution is overlooked. So what is being done, and can be done, to raise awareness?
International Dark Sky Association
The international Dark Sky Association not only discusses the negative effects of light pollution, but also advocates for the preservation of dark skies for the observation of astronomical events. Recently, they announced the designation of the first US International Dark Sky Sanctuary in New Mexico.
Dark Site Finder
Dark Site Finder has a map that allows users to search for dark skies around their location, or anywhere in the world. Connected to Google Maps, this light pollution map illustrates where the most concentrated artificial light at night is. Not only is this a great visual tool for spreading awareness, but it can also be used to navigate to dark sky areas for stargazing and other related activities.
‘Be Greener’ Programs
Tourism is one of the most popular, yet environmentally irresponsible industries, and a big contributor to global light pollution. But out of a desire to be more planet-friendly, hotels like the Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona have adopted “Be Greener” programs, which turn off external lights when they are not needed, implement recycling programs, and embrace water conservation efforts.
“Sustainable tourism practices not only have enormous social and emotional value for both guests and associates, but also a hidden economic value,” says Bruce Lange, managing director of the Westin when talking about sustainable tourism. “Few opportunities can uniformly galvanize the interests of patrons, employees and ownership, but sustainable practices do exactly that.”
The more awareness that can be raised and action that can be encouraged in industries like tourism and other businesses, the greater the global impact.
Globe At Night
Globe at Night Globe at Night is a program of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the national center for ground-based nighttime astronomy in the United States, operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. The program encourages citizen scientists to make observations, and upload them to their website. They make it easy, with two free mobile apps, including a Loss of the Night Sky app and a Dark Sky Meter app.
This uploaded data adds more data points and updated information to their maps, allowing them to track changes in light pollution for better or worse, and to accurately map both dark and polluted skies.
Cities at Night
Another project, Cities at Night, is using photos taken from the International Space Station to map light pollution in cities all around the world. The photos have ten times the resolution of any photos previously available to the public, and the project requires the georeferencing of more than 130,000 photos.
The photos are georeferenced by volunteers all over the world, and provide a stunning visual representation of the issue.
How can you help?
Donate money and time. Many of the initiatives above are run by nonprofits and Universities, so donations are tax deductible. If you have GIS skills, Cities at Night can use your help georeferencing photos of cities you may recognize, and anyone can take pictures and readings of the night sky in their area for Globe at Night.
Get involved in your community. Discuss with your community leaders about lighting plans and options smaller cities are modeling after programs already in place in New York and Chicago. Participate in light and energy savings programs at home and at work,
Spread the word. Utilize social media to get your message across. Share relevant information with your friends and followers, and engage them in conversations. “The unique ability that we have through social media is to reach to people and for them to communicate back to us,” says Jeanine Guidry of George Washington University on using social media. “If we don’t use that we’re using a large part of the functionality.”
Don’t just post articles and studies: engage in chats and conversations online, maintaining respect for those with differing options.
Talk to your friends and family, and encourage your children (if you have them) to be responsible with light and energy. The key to solving any environmental issue is rooted in raising awareness.
In the long run, spreading the word about light pollution will set us all up for a brighter future.