We “fell back” from daylight saving time to standard time earlier this month. While that may interfere with some outdoor activities such as sports, the extended “night time” means more opportunity to turn your eyes toward the invigorating, beautiful night sky — if artificial light doesn’t blot out your view of the stars.
When we had an agrarian society and a nascent (or no) electric grid, electricity was viewed as a scarce, expensive resource worth saving. But in this time of indoor work, affluence and abundance, “we’ll leave the light on for you” isn’t just an advertising slogan, it’s the default position for many people in developed countries.
I lived in the Atlanta area (pop. 6 million and growing) from 1998–2017. Over the course of those two decades, as the population grew by about 1½ million people, a dearth of light pollution regulations meant when we wanted to stargaze with our kids, we had an obstructed view.
Taking steps to minimize light pollution won’t just improve our nightly views. It will also help mitigate some adverse effects that the proliferation of artificial light has inflicted on our climate and wildlife.
That’s why the Dark Sky movement, which works “to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting polices and public education” is winning hearts and minds across the country.
National parks from Acadia in Maine to Capitol Reef in Utah, and their surrounding communities, are among the areas leading the charge to keep our skies naturally dark each night. During a family vacation to Capitol Reef 14 months ago, the darkness stunned us. After passing the last man-made light miles before entering the park, driving felt surreal, as if I were on the moon. The next night, we all gazed upward and saw the sky with an unprecedented clarity.
Aesthetically, that beauty is reason enough to determine how we can use less light at night. Pragmatically, our environment may depend on it — and the primary solution is so simple that even a dim bulb can act on it.
The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) says that at least 30 percent of all outdoor lighting in the United States is wasted, mostly because those fixtures don’t have shields to direct the light where it needs to go. IDA says that high-quality shielded lighting could cut energy use by 60–70 percent — a savings of up to $3.3 billion and 21 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. We’d need to plant 875 million trees a year to offset those emissions.
While the process of providing outdoor nocturnal lighting damages our climate, the light itself hurts both human and wildlife populations. Artificial light messes with our circadian rhythms, causing health problems ranging from sleep deficits to obesity. When it comes to animals, light pollution disrupts breeding, migration and predator-prey relationships, among other things.
Stargazing is among the most universal of experiences, inspiring ancient astronomers, Van Gogh and even my own family. The best way to enhance our stargazing is not complicated. We need to minimize the light that escapes into the sky at night. If we do that, we get some added bonuses: energy efficiency, better sleep and healthier ecosystems around us. It’s an opportunity for all of us to be stars.