Packed tightly into suburban areas filled with streetlamps, floodlights, headlights and sports arenas, millions of children around the world may never see a starry sky. The once star-filled sky has been obliterated by light.
A 1994 blackout left residents of Southern California frantically calling emergency services to report a strange, shining cloud in the sky. The people of Los Angeles were seeing the Milky Way, the galaxy that contains the Earth’s solar system (also the inspiration for Vincent van Gogh’s seminal work, “Starry Nights”), for the first time.
For billions of years, plant and animal life has used the predictable rhythm of night and day to survive. Over the last several decades, humankind has become far more sensitive to the consequences of some pollution, but hasn’t paid much attention to the consequences of another harmful pollutant: light.
According to NASA’s Blue Marble Navigator, Northeast Florida is one of the worst areas in the nation for light pollution, which disrupts the region’s ecosystem.
One of the most affected species is the sea turtle. Treasured by the coastal community, sea turtles can live to 60 years old. However, very few of them live that long; only one out of every 1,000 hatchlings will see a full life. While predators and natural selection are responsible for many of these deaths, a large number of the more than a million hatchlings that die each year perish because of light pollution around their nesting grounds. According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, “Disorientation from artificial lighting causes thousands of hatchling deaths each year in Florida and is a significant marine turtle conservation problem.”
In early May, sea turtle mothers build their nests above the tide line on Florida’s coast. When the hatchlings break free from their shells in October, the brightest source of light — the horizon in natural conditions — guides them back to the ocean. If the light emanating from a nearby porch or a streetlight is brighter than the moonlit horizon, the hatchling instead follows the artificial light, to its demise. Awareness of this grim fact has begun to generate grassroots awareness and efforts to improve the chances of survival for sea turtle hatchlings.
The Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch is one such organization; it works to make certain sea turtles that hatch in the sands of Fernandina Beach have a better chance at survival. During the nesting season, the volunteer-run organization conducts searches for sea turtle nests at daybreak and dusk; it also offers information and suggestions to the general public on how everybody can help protect the turtles.
Keeping the beaches free from harmful debris and litter is one of the key ways residents can protect sea turtles; another is dimming their outdoor lighting during the nesting season. If the night sky on the horizon is the brightest light – instead of those outdoor floodlights that provide an arguably false sense of security – the hatchling turtles have a better chance of making it to the ocean instead of dying on the sand under an artificial light.
Certain species, particularly migratory nocturnal birds, may also be affected by light pollution. Unable to properly navigate by starlight, National Geographic reports that migrating birds can become disoriented and wander off course, sometimes crashing into brightly lit buildings or circling them until they fall to the ground from exhaustion.
Florida State College of Jacksonville professor Dr. Mike Reynolds, a member of the nonprofit International Dark-Sky Association, which “works to help stop light pollution and preserve the night sky for future generations,” teaches his students about light pollution and associated environmental concerns.
Dr. Reynolds spoke of the last significant asteroid impact to the Earth, which took place in February 2013 in Chelyabinsk Oblast in Russia’s Ural Mountains. A fragment 150 feet wide entered the Earth’s atmosphere and exploded. Thousands of smaller meteorites pounded buildings and toppled walls. An estimated 1,500 people were injured.
Dr. Reynolds said, “There are not enough professional astronomers to cover the skies and search for incoming asteroids and larger fragments, called potentially hazardous asteroids [or PHAs].” PHAs are spotted using cameras that are extremely sensitive to light. The pollution of light in the sky can make the search for these asteroids next to impossible.
If humans continue to illuminate the night sky with commercial and residential outdoor lighting, what starry skies remain will fill up with light, and the dominoes will fall. Asteroids may enter the earth’s atmosphere without advance warnings, nocturnal predators will lose their hunting grounds to commercial and residential outdoor lighting and species like sea turtles and migratory birds will fall victim to what can only be described as deception. Additionally, the fatal attraction of insects to light may result in the decline of insect populations, which has the potential to negatively affect all species that rely on insects for food or pollination.
The only way — as with any pollution — to effectively change it is to clean it up. The simple act of conserving electricity and being conscious of the effect that light pollution has on the environment can make all the difference. Save a light, save a life.
SIX WAYS TO REDUCE LIGHT POLLUTION
Flip the switch Much light pollution can be eliminated by simply turning off lights that are not being used.
Find out if you’re paying for outdoor lighting Some utilities charge a fee for those lights that keep the neighborhood kids from being able to correctly identify Cassiopeia. If you’re being billed, they’re happy to remove the light.
Replace outdoor lights with low-glare fixtures International Dark-Sky Association evaluates lighting for glare and efficiency and conveniently puts an IDA seal of approval on dark-sky friendly fixtures. They also maintain an online database of approved fixtures at darksky.org/fsa/fsa-products.
Add motion sensors to outdoor lights Not only does this improve security, it diminishes light pollution and, as a bonus, saves money that could be spent on a high-powered telescope.
Replace high-energy bulbs with solar-powered walkway lamps, which are inexpensive and easy to maintain Take note that in recent years, a myth has been perpetuated that brighter, more efficient CFLs and LEDs are better for light pollution. The opposite is true.
Change the direction of outdoor lighting While removing and replacing lights is ideal, much light pollution is purely the result of pointing lights in the wrong direction. Lights that point upward are wasting natural resources (coal power) and polluting the night sky with light.
*Sources: Mother Nature Network, International Dark-Sky Association