Beautiful, isn’t it? I have always loved images of and from space.

They are so tranquil. They help me put my thoughts and concerns into perspective. Humans are a tiny, fragile, and short-lived part of nature. We need to appreciate it all for the fleeting time that we have it.

While the image of earth at night is beautiful, it is one we can only appreciate from secondhand sources. Unless you are one of the privileged few who have witnessed earth from space in person. I have no bad feelings towards those elite few because they worked darn hard to get there. It is just a very exclusive club.

While they can appreciate the beauty for a short stint from space, the rest of us are bound to earth. That leaves us with our only vantage point, up. The same view that humans and our ancestors have seen for ages. Well, not so much.

For many of us, the sky no longer looks like the one that has inspired religion, science, and art in the past. Light pollution has greatly diminished its appearance. So unlike many things, the reality is actually better than what it appears to be.

Ever hear of FOMO? It is an acronym standing for the fear of missing out. Have you ever experienced it? You should, in regard to the sky. Many of us are truly missing out on one of the most dazzling views nature has to offer. We shouldn’t need to travel to the mountains, forest, or beach, we should be able to just look up.

Granted, light pollution isn’t the only thing that prevents us from a Hubble-esque view. Our own eye function has limitations. Atmospheric particles and turbulence obstruct our view. Additionally, the Sun reflecting off the debris in our solar system causes a natural glow that interferes with the view. Unfortunately, we are pretty powerless on these factors, but we do have power in the causes of what is light pollution.

Losing the beauty of the night sky is just a minor consequence of light pollution. There are more serious consequences that should concern us all. We owe it to the Earth and humanity to correct these problems.

So, let’s look at what is light pollution, what are the consequences, and what we can do about it.

 

What is light pollution?

There are 3 major types of light pollution. They are:

1. Skyglow

This term is not to be confused with the natural glow of the sky due to the Sun mentioned above. Skyglow is man-made for the most part. It is caused by upward pointed light bouncing around with the aerosols in the atmosphere.

You know what I am talking about. When you are looking towards a city or even a sports field that is brightly lit up. When you don’t have direct sight of the object creating the light, but the light created is visible above it.

This is primarily what we are seeing in the featured image of this article. This is what can be seen from space making it pretty easy for alien life to find our biggest cities. Wink, wink. 

(See Related: Do you wonder if there is life beyond Earth? Consider the Drake equation)

If you wonder how your home looks from space at night, check out the Blue Marble Navigator. I hate to admit that light pollution looks gorgeous from the sky.

2. Glare

This occurs when light actually conceals what is supposed to be illuminated. Glare can be broken down into blinding glare, disability glare, and discomfort glare. Everyone who has looked too close at the sun or driven at night is familiar with glare.

 

black out light pollution comparison

Skyglow, glare, and light trespass are visible in the image on the right. Photos taken during and after the Northeast blackout of August 14, 2003. Credit: Todd Carlson from Spaceweather.com

3. Light trespass

This is when light spills beyond the area that is intended to be lit. Have you ever turned out the lights at night only to become acutely aware of the lights from neighboring establishments? That is light trespass.

In some areas, government has recognized that light can be a pollutant and enacted legislation regarding lighting. Education and awareness of light pollution and light trespass have been growing. Hopefully, this will spread far and wide just like the light.

diagram of what is light pollution

Diagram of different types of light pollution. Credit: International Dark-Sky Association via www.ecmweb.com/lighting-amp-control/latest-light-pollution

 

Why you should care

There are many ways that light pollution impacts the world. Let’s break it down.

1. Nature (flora and fauna)

Prolonged exposure to unnatural light has been shown to disrupt the natural seasonal changing in trees. This has repercussions on the many animals that depend on those trees for living, eating, and breeding.

Unnatural nighttime lighting also impacts animals that use moonlight as a guide. Turtles and birds are examples of animals that get disoriented due to unnatural light. Turtles can get so confused they never find the sea. Birds are attracted to unsafe environments where they collide with communications towers or buildings. Other animals, especially nocturnal animals, have their habitat altered to the extent that it impacts their biological systems, not good!

2. Human health

You hear all the time about the importance of sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep it impacts your health. I am a huge proponent of good sleep hygiene. I touch on it in my article listed below.

(See Related: 6 reasons I read the Smithsonian magazine)

You know where I am going with this…unnatural nighttime lights really messes with your circadian rhythm and melatonin levels. Yes, this also applies to your tv, computer, and phone screens at night as well. Circadian rhythm problems can increase your risk of sleep disorders, depression, obesity, and cancer.

You may think that sleep is just a pause button for your body, but it is so much more. Your body is busy at work doing important stuff while you sleep. Your brain consolidates memories. Your body cleans out toxins. Scientists are still learning about the toll sleep deprivation can take on the body.

3. Economics

Over- or improperly lighting is a huge waste of money and resources. Using lighting in places or times when it isn’t necessary is a waste of energy. Over lighting is a waste of money. Ugh, a double whammy that no one needs.

If you want to get more into the numbers of the waste, visit my resources listed below.

4. Culture

It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.

-Vincent Van Gogh (1888)

The sheer wonder of the night sky has influenced humans in many ways. It is part of our universal heritage. If you want to be reminded of how deeply it can touch you, take a look at this video titled Plains Milky Way courtesy of Randy Halverson at dakotalapse.com

Of course, the night sky doesn’t just provide inspiration for the arts. Astronomy and an interest in the cosmos is really a gateway science. Many kids are fascinated by stars. Their natural curiosity and endless questioning is a wonderful introduction to science. The passion they find in the sky can lead them to STEM careers in their future.

5. Security

Lighting for safety may have the opposite effect. Many large security lights cause glare and deep shadows minimizing vision of the “secured” area. The design of many light fixtures obstruct light from reaching immediate areas and bleeds into areas that aren’t intended to be lit.

Lighting areas can provide more information to those who may be tempted to commit illegal activity. A dark area may require flashlights to light areas making them more suspect and drawing more attention to themselves. FBI reports indicate that burglaries occur more often during full daytime hours. Security is obviously a more complicated issue, but lights may not be helping.

6. Astronomy

I’m not referring to astrology. Astronomy is real science. It isn’t about stargazing in a dreamy romantic state. Information about the universe, our world, and physics is all fed from astronomy.

Astronomy can answer some of the biggest questions for mankind. I am so curious. Our past, our present, and even the future of humanity may all be in the stars.

 

What you can do

That was all kind of bad news. Here is the good part. We have the power to change it. We can make a difference on an individual level as well as on a more global level.

First off, start at home.

  • Turn off your lights when you don’t use them. Use motion-detector switches.
  • Close shades and blinds when your lights are on to avoid light trespass to neighbors.
  • Ensure your fixtures are using appropriate shielding to only illuminate what is needed.
  • Use appropriate bulbs/lamps. For help, use IDA resources to help you find the right lighting solution for you.

Next, share your knowledge of what is light pollution and what are the consequences with others. This includes:

  • Neighbors
  • Community businesses
  • Local educational institutions and organizations
  • Local, regional, and national governing bodies
  • Online friends, family, and whoever will listen

Finally, help the global community. What you can do:

  • Join or start a local chapter of IDA
  • Give your time, talent, or money to support organizations promoting the education of dark skies
  • Help gather information for studies by becoming a citizen scientist at Globe at Night

(See Related: Have some time? Volunteer online)

 

Saving the skies

I have always been fascinated by the universe.

I loved planetariums as a child and still do. I loved Star TrekStar Wars, and The Jetsons as a child and still do. However, I never knew about light pollution. I never put any thought into why I couldn’t see the same things from my backyard as I could in the planetarium. I think I was too busy letting my mind wander to other questions to be sidetracked. What do you think about when you look at the sky? Have you ever given any thought to what is light pollution?

Well, I hope that you learned from this article. Perhaps I inspired you to take action. At the least, I hope I informed you a little about the issue.

What do you make of all this information? Does it give you FOMO?

Let me know your thoughts in the poll and comments.

 

How much did you know about light pollution?

 

Resources

Bogard, Paul. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. New York: Little, Brown, 2013. Print.

An international citizen-science campaign at Globe at Night

International Dark-Sky Association

LiteLynx list– A wonderful resource of light pollution internet links

Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution from Environmental Health Perspectives

Mizon, Bob. Light Pollution: Responses and Remedies. London: Springer, 2002. Print.

Blue Marble Navigator courtesy of Night-Lights imagery by NASA’s Earth Observatory

Plains Milky Way video courtesy of Dakotalapse.com

Scagell, Robin. Urban Astronomy: Stargazing from Towns & Suburbs. Buffalo, NY: Firefly ., 2014. Print.

The Problems of Light Pollution — Overview from FAU Astronomical Observatory

Why Do We Need Sleep? from The National Sleep Foundation