By Michael Pham & William McKinney
For thousands of years, humanity has looked to the night sky and seen its heroes in the stars and constellations. Orion, Andromeda and the Pleiades dominated legends and myths of cultures around the world, inspiring people for generations and fueling their curiosity for the “great beyond.” Today, however, finding inspiration and fueling curiosity from stargazing has become difficult. Constellations and most stars are obscured by an ominous glow that dominates the night sky.
This glow is light pollution, a phenomenon resulting from artificial light produced by streetlights and lights in homes and workplaces that are either improperly shielded or turned on at night. Light pollution was brought to the forefront by an ambitious citizen science study by Fabio Falchi, “The New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness,” published in the Journal of Scientific Advances.
The study used advanced satellite imagery, computer algorithms and hundreds of thousands of reports from amateur astronomy enthusiasts from around the world to compile a frightening picture showing that more than 80% of the world’s population lives under light-polluted skies.
This artificial light obscures our view, hiding the Milky Way galaxy from approximately 80% of North Americans.
The increase of light pollution throughout populated areas has become so severe that the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) designates “dark sky preserves” similar to how the Fish and Wildlife Service designates nature preserves for endangered animals.
Many argue that increased light makes society safer, for example, by decreasing crime and improving visibility for drivers.
Those arguments, however, ignore the impact of light pollution on the physical and mental health of humans, as well as its disruptive effect on wildlife.
Researchers have suggested that light pollution increases the risk of obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes and breast cancer in humans.
In animals, the effect can be as equally disastrous.
Sea turtles, for example, tend to travel toward the brightest light in sight when they hatch.
The brightest light is supposed to be the moon’s reflection on the sea, drawing the hatchlings to their natural habitat.
Light pollution, however, confuses them and leads the hatchlings away from the sea where they are vulnerable to predators. This pollution is equal to death for the exposed, disoriented newborns.
Light pollution further affects our ideas of how and where we fit into the universe. In his book “Pale Blue Dot,” Carl Sagan wrote: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the greatly enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
Gazing up at the vast and endless sea of stars reminds us that we are a small part of a much greater whole, humbling us and highlighting that the universe is not simply ours to do with as we please.
Despite light pollution’s clear negative effects, and the clear positive effects of reducing it, little is being done to address it.
Scientists have estimated that approximately one half of city light use is wasted, illuminating nothing but the sky.
The Department of Energy has estimated that a reduction of this wasted lighting could save U.S. citizens $3.5 billion per year in energy costs. Yet, people remain more or less disinterested in it, as turning off or shielding lights at night is viewed as an inconvenience.
Legislation is typically a slow process and is often undercut by special interest groups that benefit by maintaining the status quo.
We do not have to completely depend on policy makers, scientists or urban planners to reduce light pollution.
Relatively simple and immediate steps can be taken by anyone who can turn off exterior lights at night, shield lights that cannot be turned off or dimmed or install more efficient lights that have a warm color temperature.
Rather than being afraid of the dark, perhaps we can focus on regaining the inspiration and curiosity produced by the constellation of heroes so aptly displayed in the stars.
William McKinley is the project leader for Bronco Space’s BLADE (Balloon Launch Assessment Directive) program at Cal Poly Pomona. Michael Pham is the Bronco Space program manager.
Bronco Space, Pomona’s CubeSat Lab, has launched a program to investigate our atmosphere and our planet from LEO (low earth orbit).
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