Janet Jensen: Darker skies ahead


MONTEREY — Around this time of year, there is something undeniably attractive about the lights that punctuate these dark days, reminders of the archetypical significance of light. But when we put away our holiday illumination, perhaps we may want to be more conscious of the impact our lighting has on neighbors large and small.

In recent years, excessive and ill-considered use of light has resulted in what is now a significant form of pollution. "Light pollution" has been gaining an increasing amount of concern, initially by astronomers and stargazers, more recently from environmentalists, birdwatchers, scientists and public health professionals of many stripes.

The recently approved LEDs (light emitting diodes) for Pittsfield, as discussed in the Dec. 25 issue of the Eagle, seem to be a step in the right direction. In addition to saving money and cutting carbon emissions, the chosen fixtures will cast illumination in the warmer range of the spectrum, which technically means under 3,000 kelvins. This is commendable because the cooler, bluer colors (over 3,000 kelvins) associated with older LEDs are proving dangerous for human health and the environment.

As in many other areas, it seems that our numbers and our technological prowess have outstripped our understanding of what is balanced for us and our planet. Scientists have calculated a 2.2 per cent increase in the Earth's outdoor artificial lighting each year between 2012 and 2016 - which adds up to an order of magnitude over half a decade.

Humans and other living things evolved under a dazzling night sky with millions of visible stars. This celestial view, as David Owen wrote in a 2007 New Yorker article, can be "a powerful source of reflection, inspiration, discovery, and plain old jaw-dropping wonder." But even here in the rural Berkshires, the glory of the night sky is often obscured by excessive lighting. It's questionable whether a star of wonder would even be noticed these days.


The problem of too much and poorly designed lighting extends beyond the loss of our view of the cosmos. Poorly designed and excessive outdoor lighting wastes electricity, impacts human health, and disturbs natural rhythms and habitats. At a time when communities of plants and animals are under siege from so many directions, this is a relatively simple one to adjust. As verified by numerous scientific studies, bright blue and white light is considered a likely culprit in the recent catastrophic declines in insects, which is terrible news for food chains.

Lights under 3,000 kelvins are also in compliance with provisions of a bill that has been brought forward in our legislature and now has good prospects of being approved. Legislators should be urged to enact it, given the intensification of the problem and the growing awareness of light pollution in the Berkshires. More than than 40 communities in Massachusetts, including Dalton and Northampton, have already instituted their own dark skies bylaws since 2000. A Massachusetts chapter of the International Dark Sky Association, which was founded 30 years ago to educate and advocate on this issue, is being established. Arunah Hill, in nearby Cummington, has gained attention as one of the darkest spots left in southern New England.

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When it comes to outdoor lighting, it's important to remember that less is often more, for environmental, economic, health, and aesthetic reasons. Inappropriate lighting can paradoxically make it less safe to drive, as our eyes now have greater difficulty adjusting to rapidly changing light levels. Excessive glare renders streetscapes less attractive and disrupts sleep. And in rural areas it can adversely affect wildlife.

The International Dark-Sky Association website (www.darksky.org) offers some tips

— Use lighting only when needed

— Light only the areas that need it

— Use no brighter light than necessary

Minimize the emission of the especially harmful lighting on the blue end of the spectrum

Shield light sources so that the illumination is cast downward.

Light pollution is an issue in which individuals as well as governments, have important roles to play. It, perhaps, suggests an action for the New Year. Resolved: Analyze and adjust our outdoor lighting to minimize its environmental imprint. And talk to others about it.

Janet Jensen is a writer living in Monterey. For the past 20 years she has worked primarily for the U.N., writing and editing websites, articles and reports, with an emphasis on reproductive health and environmental issues, including climate change.


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