A call to darkness
Night is soothing. Night is inviting. Night is inspiring.
Night, pure night, is also disappearing, experts say, robbing us of unimpeded views of the stars and planets, disrupting our circadian rhythms, threatening ecosystems and even affecting our health.
Whereas darkness was once a part of the natural order of life on Earth, light pollution — humans’ overuse and misuse of artificial light at night — has cast much of the planet in a yellow and orange haze. Our eyes may have adapted to living mostly in the light, but the shift has not come without consequences.
The loss of the nighttime sky has long been an astronomers’ problem, says Shanil Virani, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University. “We just don’t see the night sky the way that our ancestors did. In some places, it may be forever gone.” According to some studies, more than 98 percent of the population of the United States will never see the Milky Way again. “I think we lose something when you can’t go outside anymore and look up and think, ‘how do we fit into that grand picture?’” Virani says.
Dr. Paul Bogard, who teaches creative nonfiction at JMU, asked some of those same questions as a child at his family’s lake house in northern Minnesota, where the night sky dazzled with stars. “It was that first-hand experience that I had that most people are not having today,” he says. “We’ve taken what was one of the most common human experiences and made it one of the most rare.”
Bogard’s recent book, “The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light” (2013), is a dark sky enthusiast’s journey through North America and Europe in search of places untouched by artificial light as well as those where electric lighting is being used wisely. The book is a study in contrast, from the bright lights of Las Vegas, where the Luxor casino’s pyramid sends out a beam of light equal to that of more than 40 billion candles, to the dimly lit Isle of Sark in the English Channel, where residents came together to reduce light emissions, resulting in the world’s first International Dark Sky Island designation in 2011.
“As important as it is to protect areas of wild pristine sky, it’s the protection of darkness in places where people actually live that will ultimately change attitudes toward light and darkness,” Bogard writes.
Light pollution isn’t just a big-city problem. It exists in suburbs and small towns, in crowded spaces and along desolate highways, in public parks and outside private residences — everywhere that artificial light spills out beyond the area for which it was intended.
“We wouldn't accept it if it were sound waves,” Virani says. “If someone was blasting a radio, we would go over and say, ‘please turn that down.’ Why do we accept it with light?”
The International Dark Sky Association estimates that the U.S. alone wastes $2.2 billion in energy from unnecessary light. “That’s an enormous waste of money, an enormous waste of resources,” Virani says.
Light pollution is having an impact on the animal world as well. Research on nocturnal creatures such as insects, turtles, birds, fish and reptiles has shown that light pollution can alter behaviors, foraging areas and breeding cycles. Female sea turtles, for example, may be discouraged from laying their eggs on a brightly lit beach, and migrating birds may become disoriented by buildings, communication towers and other structures with attendant lighting.
In humans, prolonged exposure to light at night has been linked to cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, according to the National Institutes of Health. Difficulties with adjusting the circadian clock can also lead to sleep disorders and depression, especially in people who rotate work shifts or work exclusively at night.
Many people equate more light at night with added safety and security, but Bogard says much of this light is wasted. By casting glare and causing shadows, he says, too much light can actually reduce safety by making it harder to see and providing “bad guys” the cover they need.
The first step in reducing light pollution is awareness. “If you’re under 50 years old, you’ve grown up surrounded by artificial light and you may not know anything different,” Bogard says. “Once you begin to see light pollution, you see it everywhere, and you can think about how to control it.”
Many fixes are simple, like turning off lights when they’re not being used, installing motion sensors and shielding the light so that it is directed downward onto the ground, where it’s needed.
JMU is planning a week of events later this month aimed at raising awareness of light pollution on campus and in the community. The full schedule can be found here.
“If we could get things going here at JMU, we could have a real ripple effect in the valley,” Bogard says.
Jim Heffernan ('96), JMU Public Affairs
March 12, 2014