Light Pollution is Worse Than Just Preventing Us From Seeing the Stars

Clear SkiesBy Scott Levine

About 12 years ago, not long after we moved up from Brooklyn, I carried my daughter into the night and looked up. I was amazed. With no trouble at all I could see the delicate arch of six stars that form Orion’s shield! I could see the Milky Way!

In the years since, I’ve watched as more and more lights have sprung up in my neighborhood and around Westchester. They’re on driveways and doorsteps. They light up empty street corners, deserted sports fields and low-hanging tree branches. One neighbor sometimes sees fit to point his SUV at his house and turn on his headlights at midnight. The light bounces everywhere, and trespasses into other houses.

As the sky cleared last week, I realized I can’t see Orion’s shield anymore. It’s slowly disappeared into the night, pushed back and retreated, like a frightened bear hiding in the woods. Have you noticed, too? Most people around the world say they can’t see the Milky Way at all. We’ve dirtied the skies with light and let that piece of humanity slip away.

At its simplest, light pollution is the unnecessary, wasteful use of light, brightening nighttime skies. To many people, this sounds like a joke, but it is a serious problem, far beyond “dark skies are cool.”

Light pollution affects the well-being and life cycles of plants and animals. It causes illness, injury and problems with migratory and reproductive patterns. It disrupts astronomical research. The loss of dark skies is believed to contribute to stress, burn-out, loneliness and disconnection from other people.

moon phasesStudies have shown links between light pollution and sleep problems in humans, which, in turn, are linked to breast and other types of cancer. Light pollution contributes to global climate change by using more energy to run these lights.

Safety isn’t the answer either. Statistics suggest an increase in crime in over-lit areas because we’re giving steady and consistent light to the criminals, free of charge. Who hasn’t been blinded by overly bright streetlights while driving?

Most important to some: it wastes money. We’re spending more and more to power these lights so we can, ever so slightly, light the undersides of passing airplanes.

But all is not lost. People and communities are committing themselves to the cause. A dark sky tourism industry is growing with the help of organizations like the International Dark Sky Association. Here are five easy things any of us can do:

  1. Simplest and most effective, turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. We don’t need to light up everything around us.
  2. Shield the outdoor lights you do need and direct their light downward at the specific area you need to light, rather than upward toward the sky.
  3. Use amber lights and put them on motion sensors and timers so they’re only on when necessary.
  4. Use blinds and curtains to reduce the light leaving your house and shut the lights when you leave rooms.
  5. Talk to your friends and neighbors about the problem. I’ve been in touch with local officials and hope to speak with them again soon.

We need dark skies. They’re part of who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Thanks for your help.

Scott Levine (astroscott@yahoo.com) is an astronomy writer and speaker from Croton-on-Hudson. He is also a member of the Westchester Amateur Astronomers, who are dedicated to astronomy outreach in our area. For information about the club, including membership, newsletters, upcoming meetings and lectures at Pace University and star parties at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, visit westchesterastronomers.org. Events are free and open to the public. Please Note: All in-person club activities are suspended until further notice due to concerns over COVID-19.

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