I'm on vacation this week, so in I've asked a few friends to pinch-hit while I'm away. This first installment comes from Jim Fisher, the first section leader for the Arkansas chapter of the International Dark Sky Association. Jim and I met while working on a cover story that appeared in the Times a few months back. I looked at the growing problem of light pollution and what Arkansas officials and utilities were doing about it. The answer is not much, but a number of concerned citizens are trying to change the way people think about this looming issue.
While doing research for the story, I visited the observatory near Wye Mountain and was completely amazed by these star-gazers, what they're able to find through their telescope lenses. The Central Arkanasas Astronomical Society will host a star-party on July 25 at Pinnacle Mountain. All are welcome to come.
Light pollution – it’s not just about astronomy.
By Jim Fisher
The alarm about light pollution and the damage it causes to the environment was first sounded by astronomers – a seemingly unlikely source of environmental activism. As development has spread further from the urban centers, unshielded and ever brighter security lighting has all but obliterated the beauty of the night sky in all urban areas. Light pollution has also rendered many multi-million dollar scientific instruments in the western U.S. virtually useless. Likewise, amateur astronomers – a small passionate group who regularly share their love of science with schools, scouts, and families - are forced to retreat with their telescopes to rural fields to escape the ever growing sky glow above every city and the even the smallest towns in Arkansas. To halt the loss of our view of the sky overhead – and in turn safeguard the breathtaking starscape that has inspired generations - in 1988 the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) was founded with the mission to “preserve and protect the nighttime environment and heritage of dark skies.”
Saving both the beauty and the science of the night sky should be reason enough to make a stand against light pollution. But recent studies strongly indicate that the damage to our environment by light pollution runs deeper than just disrupting recreational stargazers and astronomical research. The damage from light pollution appears to be very real. It has resulted in a huge waste of energy (and needless increase in carbon emissions), has been implicated in causing insomnia and disease in humans by interfering with circadian cycles, and has disrupted the migration of birds and loss of nocturnal wildlife habitat.
The carbon footprint from the wasted electricity that results in light pollution is massive. Wasted outdoor lighting, lighting which shines upward and does not reach its intended target, is estimated by the IDA to amount to 22,000 gigawatt-hours per year. At an average of 10 cents per kilo-watt hours this equals $2.2 billion and translates to 3.6 million tons of coal or 12.9 million barrels of oil per year. And of course, all of this translates directly into needless costs to electrical ratepayers.
In June of 2009 the American Medical Association (AMA) House of Delegates issued a resolution, which advocates that all future outdoor lighting be of energy efficient designs to reduce waste of energy and production of greenhouse gasses that result from this wasted energy use. The resolution also noted that light trespass – unwanted light pollution that enters another’s home – “has been implicated in disruption of human and animal circadian rhythms, and strongly suspected as an etiology of suppressed melatonin production, depressed immune systems, and increased in cancer rates such as breast cancer.” Not surprisingly studies have linked an increase in sleep disorders to light pollution’s disruption of the body’s ability to produce melatonin. The damage to the human health by a lack of sleep goes beyond one just feeling tired, sometimes resulting in weight gain, stress, depression, or the onset of diabetes. Further, the AMA resolution reads that nighttime glare “causes decreased nighttime visibility by pupil constriction” thus actually reducing safety rather than promoting it.
Bright lights from urban areas disrupt the ecosystems of both migratory birds and nocturnal animals. Examples of mammals’ habitats impacted by light pollution include bats, raccoons, coyotes, deer and moose. Many species of birds either hunt or migrate at night. One hundred million birds die each year in North America due to collisions with lighted towers or buildings. Some species have stopped age old migrations altogether and studies indicate this is due to light pollution on the migration pathways. Reptiles such as sea turtles and insects such as fireflies have also seen a sharp decline in the numbers and light pollution is strongly suspected as a major contributing factor in these losses.
Your role in combating light pollution is easy! Upgrade your outdoor security lighting to fully shielded, energy efficient lighting fixtures and lights off when they are not needed. The IDA Fixture Seal of Approval program recognizes manufacturers who create dark sky friendly lighting fixtures that are fully shielded to minimize stray light. The IDA website lists these lighting manufacturers, as well as distributors, that supply lighting products that carry the IDA seal as “Night Sky Friendly” products. The IDA website is located at www.darksky.org . Join IDA in its mission to educate the public about light pollution and advocating for modern legislation and ordinances that call for quality and efficient security, street and business lighting. Talk to your neighbors about their “trespassing” lights and your public officials about outdoor lighting laws and policies.
The Arkansas Section of the IDA is available to meet with your civic, environmental, school or scout group and give the presentation “Protecting the Night Environment” which focuses on light pollution issues here in Arkansas. The IDA volunteers also attend public star parties through-out the state to answer questions about light pollution and modern lighting options. The IDA-AR will be present at upcoming star parties at Pinnacle Mountain State Park near Little Rock on the evening of Saturday, July 25 and at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center near Ft. Smith on the evening of Friday August 14. IDA-AR may be reached through DarkSkyArkansas@gmail.com
. Jim Fisher is a Little Rock attorney and avid star gazer. He is the Vice-President of the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society. In the fall of 2008 he co-founded and serves as the first section leader of the International Dark-Sky Association, Arkansas Section.