Monday, April 28, 2014

Darkening the Night Skies to Light Them Up

The first time I remember ever seeing a clear night sky, with bright twinkling stars, I was 12 and at sixth grade camp. We were up fairly high in the mountains surrounding the San Joaquin Valley, a good distance away from any city lights, and our camp guide had taken my class and me out to a clearing in the woods to star gaze. It was beautiful and bright, like having a front row view to the universe. When the week was over, I was sad to go home. Fresno was a large enough city that all the lights covered the sky with a dim, yet blinding, sheen that made it impossible to just look up and count the stars. That’s light pollution and it’s a large problem in almost every city—big or small.
Light pollution is artificial light that goes up into the night skies and reflects off molecule surfaces back down onto Earth. It mostly happens at night, with light from streetlamps, buildings, and lighted walkways scattering. It’s well known for hampering astronomers, professional or otherwise, from clearly seeing the universe beyond our atmosphere, but it has far more effects than just that. It has an influence on our health, our economy, the environment, both crime and safety, and the health of other animals. So much artificial light streaming into our senses disrupts our circadian rhythm—what regulates our sleep cycles—and can cause an increase in cancer rates, melatonin suppression, and dampen our immune system. It does much the same to other animals while also causing disorientation, such as birds that fly into brightly lit buildings or newly hatched sea turtles that never make it to the ocean because they follow the wrong light. All this artificial light gives us a false sense of security, as well. We’re afraid of the total dark, so we feel better with the lights on but that doesn’t necessarily make us safer. Light pollution also effects our night vision, leaving us open to more accidents.
All is not lost, though. There are still places in the world, like areas around Wairarapa and Wellington, New Zealand, where the night sky is as clear and beautiful as ever. These are places where the Milky Way galaxy and other beautiful aspects of space can be seen, as astrophotographer Mark Gee found. There are also programs, such as the International-Dark Sky Association (IDA), that encourage and give recognition for places that put policies in place to diminish light pollution. Some places, like James Madison University, have even taken it upon themselves to educate the masses, for JMU this would be Starry Nights Harrisonburg week. In the end, it’s all about using light responsibly and then only when needed and then maybe one day we can turn all the world’s night into that brilliant starry image I remember from sixth grade camp.

Here is a link to a picture of what light pollution in the U.S. is predicted to become by 2025.


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