Sky Glow

In today’s media, conservation campaigns by not-for-profit organisations like PETA and Greenpeace are not uncommon. We’re used to the idea that our natural resources need protecting, our oceans are under threat, climate change, polar bears, blah blah blah we-need-to-do-something-I’m-not-even-kidding blah. There’s so much out there in our faces that sometimes we can switch off.

But this morning, I read about something that I never thought would need protecting.

Earth_at_Night_Image_Mapping_600x300

Researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK published an article in Scientific Reports this week that highlights the ever-increasing issue of artificial lights in cities.

We take illumination for granted. In a place like Sydney, city lights are just something you get used to. Brightness in cities is convenient and in many ways, safer. But what is it doing to the economy? What effect is it having on us? What is the extra light doing to the animals and plants that live in and around our cities?

Since 2001, artificial “sky glow” has been recognised as an issue and is considered one of the most prevalent forms of man-made (anthropogenic) pollution. The authors of the paper outline a number of problems associated with this increase in sky glow including interruptions of sleep and melanin production in humans, migration patterns for birds and behavioural problems in animals that rely on lunar light.

In fact, the disruption of the lunar light available and the obstruction of the moon in general can have dire effects on the ecological cycles as a whole. Organisms rely on a lunar clock and for things like foraging and then the breakdown of organic matter in soils. Artificial lights essentially add to the number of hours of full-moon equivalent light which can seriously stuff around an animal that can’t understand that the light’s coming from a number of street lights, office blocks and neon advertisements in the nearby city and not from the night sky.

I had never thought about this issue. I’ve grown up in cities with light blaring in through my window at night. The glow on the horizon, for me, is completely normal. So I started doing some extra reading and I’ve discovered a wealth of information and organisations. Like these guys: the International Dark-Sky Association.

Once a source of wonder–and one half of the entire planet’s natural environment—the star-filled nights of just a few years ago are vanishing in a yellow haze. Human-produced light pollution not only mars our view of the stars; poor lighting threatens astronomy, disrupts ecosystems, affects human circadian rhythms, and wastes energy to the tune of $2.2 billion per year in the U.S. alone.

This group is heavily involved in policy, promoting the idea of lighting “what you need, when you need it.”

The World At Night is another group that I’ve found. They’re dedicated to documenting what we’re missing in a series of incredible galleries of photographs. Take a look – I wasted an afternoon trawling through the panoramic and stunning pictures.

night sky

The thing that stands out for me in all of this new information though, is what happens when 60% of the population living in cities is separated from the night sky. Davies et al., refer to this as the “extinction of experience”. Essentially, not being able to see the stars in the sky isolates us from the natural environment and our connection to conservation issues. Perhaps this is why apathy is so prevalent in our culture. I know before I started studying it, I was nowhere near as informed or cared nearly as much as I do now, about climate change and responsible consumption of our natural resources. I do think it’s slightly more complicated than not being able to see stars, but I can see how being isolated in our little patch of artificial sky glow would contribute to our sense of responsibility for our planet.

Who knows, perhaps this idea will catch on and light sources like these backyard geneticists are creating will become more commonplace.

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