This article was written by Robb Walker for submission to local newspapers. This year marks the 150th anniversary of modern amateur astronomy in the western hemisphere. It also marks the 175th anniversary of the City of Chicago. This year, the Astronomical League will be hosting its annual conference in Chicago, ALCon2012. Its theme this year is "Celebrating Starlight" as we try to bring back the stars over our towns and cities. We will keep you updated if/when Robb's article is published.
Edit: A story about Robb and the push for darker night skies appeared in The Courier-News on February 1, 2012. You can read "Urban Lights A Bit Too Bright" on the newspaper's website.
There is a great natural resource that has influenced humankind since the dawn of our species. It has been an inspiration to the greatest poets, authors, and philosophers in history. It has played a major role in the formation and evolution of nearly every religion on Earth. It has given both men and women alike the courage to be brave and bold, to reach for new heights, to attempt the unthinkable, and aim for the impossible. It has sparked imagination and invention. Nearly every advanced technology, convenience, and creature comfort we enjoy today owes its very existence to it.
This natural resource is at once seemingly unreachable, and yet, comfortably within our grasp. It is everywhere and has been shared equally by all who have ever walked upon this world. For those who have sought to understand its mysteries, it has been both a blessing and a curse. Those who have attempted to explain its secrets have been exalted at times and exiled at others. Throughout history, it has astounded us at times with its awesome complexity and myriad intricacies. While at other times, it has ripped the very fabric of our culture and civilization and has challenged our knowledge and understanding of everything around us.
This grand resource serves as a common link between strangers on opposite sides of the planet. It instills great emotional and spiritual power. It has simultaneously drawn people closer together, while kicking off a massive arms race, of sorts, between nations. Truly, it can be considered the greatest natural resource our civilization has ever known.
Yet, it is slowly being taken from us!
As abundant and ubiquitous as it may be, this spectacular resource is becoming scarce for an ever-increasing percentage of the world’s population. It may seem to be dwindling very slowly, but in actuality, it has happened in a relative flash. If the entirety of our species’ existence on this planet (+/- 200,000 years) was reduced to one year, then in the equivalent of the past four hours, we have managed to virtually destroy this vast natural resource for a majority of the human race! What is worse is that if nothing is done to stem the tide, soon very few of us will ever be witness to its awesome power and beauty.
This resource that I speak of is starlight; the heavens above; dark starry nights; the cosmos.
It has been with us since the dawn of time. It has sparked myths and legends of gods and demons in nearly every culture. Authors and poets have written untold verses of its celestial wonders. It has made children dream and adults marvel in awe of its splendor. Nations have raced to be the first to touch it.
But, in this past century, we have nearly snuffed out the stars in the night sky. Oh, they are still there. They have not gone anywhere. We have simply lost sight of them. Cheap, abundant, artificial lighting has replaced our dark night skies with an ugly, ethereal glow that prevents all but the brightest stars and planets from shining through.
As our population grows and our metropolitan areas spread, the situation only gets worse. Currently, two-thirds of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way (our home galaxy) from their backyards. Neither can 40 percent of the world’s population. Unfortunately, it is estimated that by the year 2025, less than 10 percent of the American population will ever see a starry night sky. The stars are being erased from our night skies at an alarming rate.
However, it is not too late. This is a trend that can be stopped and even reversed. We can return starlight over our towns, cities, parks and neighborhoods.
Of all the various blights on our environment, light pollution is actually the simplest to correct. All it takes is the willingness to adopt smart, responsible lighting behaviors. Please consider these simple steps to help reduce light pollution:
Luckily, the benefits of using responsible lighting are not limited only to those who want to see the stars. Responsible lighting saves money, taxpayer money, and lots of it! It is estimated that Americans waste between three and five billion dollars every year illuminating the night sky and the backs of their neighbors’ homes. This unintended, wasted lighting is known as light pollution and light trespass.
Aiming lights downward where they are intended and shielding the light from straying up into the sky allows the use of lower-wattage bulbs to illuminate the same area. This saves energy and money. Plus, it helps everyone get a better night of sleep without the glare from stray outdoor lighting pouring in through our bedroom windows.
Reducing light pollution and overall light-at-night (LAN) can also help lower crime rates. This may sound counter-intuitive to many people, but there is already evidence of this being the case. Cities in the Bristol and Essex areas of the United Kingdom have adopted reduced LAN programs to help save money for the municipalities. They not only saved money, but police departments there have also reported a reduction in crime rates since the programs were implemented, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent lower.
It turns out that criminals are just as afraid of the dark as the rest of us. They do not want to use flashlights to see what they are doing because it makes them more obvious in the dark. Excess illumination only makes it easier for criminals to see their targets, commit their crimes, and escape. Law enforcement statistics show that 60 percent of residential crime occurs during daylight hours. So, adding more light at night would not affect a majority of these crimes anyway.
New studies and reports have come out on the effects of light at night on our health, environment and ecosystems. The World Health Organization has listed disruption to the circadian rhythm (due to light at night) as a carcinogen. The American Medical Association adopted a resolution urging full shielding of all public street lighting to combat the negative health impacts of constant light at night.
A recent study out of Los Angeles by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado has shown that light at night actually worsens air pollution by preventing special atmospheric molecules from doing their job of scrubbing the air clean during the night.
The constant glow of cities at night disrupts the migratory patterns of birds causing them to slam into skyscrapers at night. Newly-hatched baby sea turtles are crawling towards the bright lights of cities rather than towards the moon-lit ocean.
The far-reaching effects of our bright lights and 24/7 lifestyles are only just recently being studied, and the long-term consequences are not looking good.
Again, it is not too late to reverse this trend. But it will take a lot of education about the negatives of light pollution and the positives of smart, responsible lighting. This is an easy problem to correct, and the benefits will be shared by the entire community: municipalities, businesses, and private citizens, alike.
We can save money, reduce crime, improve our health, environment and ecosystems, and bring back the glorious stars over our cities. We do not have to turn off all our lights at night. We only need to use them more effectively and efficiently. Remember: “Lights Down, Stars Up!”