Starry, Starry Night (Not)

*National Geographic* (Nov. 2008 issue) has a compelling cover story on “The End of Night,” which explains how excessive artificial lighting is damaging our planet. The article describes the enormous harm to wildlife caused by lights that disturb normal nocturnal cycles. In tragic terms, we learn about migrating birds crashing into lit-up skyscrapers, sea turtles struggling to find dark beaches on which to nest, and hatchlings that are suddenly vulnerable to predators.

Casualties to wildlife are only part of the costs of unnecessary lighting at night. A growing number of humans can no longer see stars, or what they can see represent a tiny fraction of what the night sky has to offer. This map gives a picture of light intensity at night around the world.

I became more aware of what I was missing when I took my daughter to Yosemite National Park in 2003. On a chilly August night, we stood on Glacier Point during a period when Mars was making its closest pass to Earth in 60,000 years. The Milky Way was so vivid, we felt like we could touch it. Millions of stars were visible in every direction. Thanks to a generous astronomer, who let us peer into his telescope, we saw more planets, including Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus. That night was a powerful, truly spiritual experience.

As National Geographic points out, more efficient and targeted outdoor light fixtures can help address a considerable portion of the night lighting problem. In fact, many cities and towns now have laws that restrict the use and type of lights at night. Reducing unnecessary lighting has other welcome benefits: lower energy costs and less greenhouse gas emissions.

**Update:** The New York Times had an encouraging article this past Sunday on efforts to reduce night lighting in New York City (watch the short video embedded in the Times story). In addition, the International Dark-Sky Association has a directory of outdoor light fixtures that meet the organization’s standards for avoiding unnecessary light pollution.

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  1. michael - October 29, 2008

    I began writing a book a while ago Adam about how the human race is distancing itself from its the natural world. In my context, the disappearance of stars was used as a fundamental philsophical observation “…a loss of tactile sentation for nature…”
    …and from a more pragmatic perspective, we might save a few dollars and reduce the quantity of co2 output if we turn a few lights off…why cities are aglow from space in the middle of the night should be examined from a view in addition to safety…

  2. David - October 29, 2008

    I used to have a telescope (3″ reflector) as a kid growing up on the farm outside of the city. The city lights glow in the west were surreal. Winter skies were my favorite time for stargazing, although cold. The milky way, the Pleiades, the planets, the moon were all there to appreciate.
    Now I live in the city on a small eco footprint and bike to work. I am careful to design my exterior lighting to avoid light pollution. LED bulbs offer a new opportunity to realize some benefits. These bulbs are both highly efficient and highly directional, a good fit for eco reasons. They have no warm-up time like CFLs and no mercury or lead (ROHS labeled).
    My porch light (an old style lantern hung over the doorway) now has an LED bulb pointed downward directly at the stoop. 3 watts!
    My light on the side of our back garage/patio is an old fashioned looking gooseneck with a galvanized metal shade. I fitted an LED bulb in it recently (3 watts). Before that I had a reflector CFL flood (10 watts). The shade points all the light downward, not into your eyes as you look at it from the side of the yard. I actually put that light on a motion detector switch also, so it isn’t burning continuously.
    My biggest dislikes are the outdoor light fixtures on residences and commercial properties (the worst offenders with sodium vapor lights) that are unshaded, glaring light going everywhere all night long.
    I aspire to a day when I can stargaze from my urban backyard with my young son. It’s a cool thing to appreciate our planet’s special position (to us) in the universe!

  3. Edward Mangold - October 29, 2008

    Western National Parks featuring dark night sky observations report that they are encountering visitors who have never previously seen the night sky from a dark location.

  4. Harry - October 30, 2008

    What is so sad is that the loss of stellar visibility is unnoticed by most people. Most folks do not have seeing the Milky Way on their radar, and have no idea how unshielded lights contribute to skyglow. If we could get Home Depot and others to stop selling mercury vapor yard lights, it would be a big step in the right direction.

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