The Creeping Deadly Miasma Of Light Pollution

“In all these places the confused night remains bright

with confounding light, the day remains dim,

harder to remember than a chalk board

one particular day in first grade,

harder to remember than the first taste of water.”

James Tipton

“In Towns Made of Steel”

On rare summer nights when I was a boy, the aurora borealis was clearly visible from the deck behind my parents’ house in our tiny Midwestern town. On my grandfather’s farm four miles out in the country, on a gravelly township road, the ghostly curtains were even more evident as they whispered their way across the abyss of the overhanging heavens.

Even though in recent years I have spent time in the north country of Michigan and Minnesota, it has been many years since I have seen the northern lights, as they are commonly referred to. Neither do I often see other old familiar heavenly sights. Rarely do I even spot Ursa Major the Big Dipper, let alone Cassiopeia staring vainly into her mirror, Polaris, the polestar that led so many out of southern bondage to sanctuary in Canada, or the galaxy we share with millions of stars, the so-called Milky Way.

If I were to drive down the once again dusty township road that bisected my grandfather’s 72-acre farm, I would find the willows and cattails along the creek and across the bottomlands no longer illuminated solely by the glimmering masses of fireflies. Now their fairy signals are drowned out by the harsh blue/green violence of vapor lights from atop lampposts and garage roofs. I doubt that even the once melodious tree frogs who once serenaded the night sky can be heard from back in the swamp behind the house.

I am not alone in my discomfiture. In his latest book An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, science writer Ed Yong reports that two-thirds of the human population now live in high light pollution areas. Among those of us in the US and across western Europe, the figure is nearer 99 percent. Forty percent exist in a state equivalent to perpetual moonlight, while 25 percent do so in an artificial twilight brighter than a full moon.

Many, it seems, fear the night. Once, while camped atop a steep cliff overlooking Kentucky’s Land of the Arches, deep inside the Daniel Boone National Forest, I was awakened by what sounded like shots fired from a heavy caliber pistol somewhere deep in the valley far below. I wondered what the person had found to shoot at on such a dark night. Perhaps he was terrified of night itself and decided to shoot it. The human imagination has always peopled the night with all sorts of fell creatures, witches and goblins and such. Maybe the unknown shooter hoped to drive them off.

While the effects of light contamination may be limited to psychological and spiritual malaise, the results for our fellow creatures are even more dire. Bright unnatural light confuses birds, sending them crashing into cell towers, wind turbines, and the sides of buildings. Ed Yong reports that each year on September 11, when the skies over New York City are drowned in two vast pillars of blue light to commemorate the terrorist attacks of 2001, an estimated 1.1 million birds are affected, many fatally. The Tribute in Light, an art installation created in remembrance of the September 11 attacks, lasts for seven days in the midst of the autumn bird migration. Small species are drawn into the intense light and remain trapped, circling endlessly, in an intensity 150 times brighter than normal. Many die from crashing into buildings. To their credit, officials turn off the bulbs every twenty minutes in order to give our avian friends a rest.

Manmade light is inimical to the wellbeing of other species as well. For many years, my wife and I have spent winters along the North Carolina coast. On several occasions, we have lived and worked there throughout the year. The natural rhythms of light and darkness have remained relatively unchanged for millennia, but human interference has altered that reality, often with tragic consequences. I have been along the Atlantic coast during the season when sea turtles hatch. Sea turtles may hatch any time of the year, but generally do so in response to warm temperatures from May through October. It is essentially a summertime phenomenon in climes where I have spent time. Coastal residents are urged to turn off outside lights during turtle hatching season. Most good souls comply, but a few feral personality types always manage to resist any limitation upon their distorted sense of freedom. The turtles leave the protection of their nests and march en masse toward the brighter light of the ocean, but they become confused by human lighting. Befuddled infant turtles often head onto highways to be smashed by speeding vehicles. Ed Yong reports that some march right into blazing campfires. Many are led into brightly lighted sports arenas. Those that simply head off in the wrong direction, away from the sea, may end up stranded and starved. Others are picked off by gulls, domestic cats and dogs, and other predators. Many would be spared by humans simply limiting their careless behaviors. Tourists and beachside visitors are urged to avoid flashing lights, like flashlights and the exploding bulbs of cameras.

Other creatures, essential links in the food chain, bats and insects, for instance, are also negatively affected by light pollution. Those who have never experienced a mayfly hatch have difficultly grasping the reality of one. One summer night while I was serving as a ranger at Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial on South Bass Island, in Lake Erie, one of the maintenance men forgot and left on an outside light over the parking lot. When staff arrived in the morning, they were greeted by a pile of mayflies waist high.

Like most insect species, the mayflies had been attracted by artificial light. We have all observed moths and other insects frantically whirring about a light bulb or streetlight. Few survive the ordeal, eventually dying of exhaustion.

The National Park Service encourages visitation at South Dakota’s Badlands by advertising exceptionally dark night skies which offer clear views of the Milky Way and other stars that have become invisible to many of us due to light pollution. Not so long ago, the Milky Way was clearly visible to most humans on reasonably clear nights. A few years back, utility companies encouraged greater consumption of electricity with the slogan “Light Up the Night.” Their primary concern is marketing electricity. Light shields over streetlights would, for instance, save electricity as well as the pristine view of the night skies. The time is long past when we should demand “Take Back the Night.”

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Lorin Swinehart
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