Outdoor Lighting Dilemmas
One of my favorite activities is sitting around a fire jawing with friends and looking at the sky. Here in Western North Carolina, living in a small town, we have stunning views of the stars...sometimes we lapse into silence and just look at it all. Shocking, really, when you know how verbose my friends and I can be!
This same activity, (fire, food, marshmallows, BS...), conducted at my old house in South Georgia, didn't have the same views. My old home was on a flight path to the airport. We had a major Air Force Base outside of town which had quite a "light profile," and you simply couldn't see that many stars anywhere inside city limits or anywhere that was close to the AFB. I could usually find the Big Dipper--maybe Venus. In fact, a number of the major constellations could be found if you really looked hard. But the vast blazing confetti strewn between those other, more easily seen stars? Unviewable. It was if they simply were not there.
This set of experiences simply illustrates an aesthetic response to some of the beauty available to us--or at least its available to us when the lights are off after dark. And therein lies the beginning of the dilemma.
There are over 312 million people alive and kicking in the Unites States. Of these, 82%--roughly 255,840,000--live in urban areas. Meaning almost all of us have neighbors close at hand, and most of us have neighbors REALLY close at hand. All of us are using artificial lighting and most of us are exposed to urban lighting, such as streetlights.
The creation of the electric light bulb expanded the possibilities for the human race beyond measure. We could work longer, play longer, see where we were going longer, even study for exams longer than ever before. And like every new, disruptive invention, this one had consequences that are still being felt today--and not just by human populations.
Let's start with those non-human populations. Our critters respond to the amount of light and the length of that "day" biologically. "Behavior governing mating, migration, sleep, and finding food are determined by the length of nighttime." (
Effect of ... on Wildlife
) While all wildlife can experience a decrease in reproduction and an increase in predation based on too much artificial light in their environments, birds, bats and reptiles may be the species most impacted by light pollution. Sea turtles can be confused enough after hatching to head the wrong way--going inland instead of out to sea--because of onshore lighting. (Historically, the reflective surface of the sea would have been the brightest thing to beckon them.) And bird deaths (to the tune of 100 million) caused by collisions with lighted structures have an immense impact (forgive that, please) on avian species. In short, plenty of wildlife is actively put at risk by our artificial light obsession.
All of life on earth with blood in its veins that lives above ground experiences something known as the Circadian Clock--the 24 hour day/night cycle. This cycle "
affects physiologic processes in almost all organisms. These processes include brain wave patterns, hormone production, cell regulation, and other biologic activities." (
Missing the Dark
) We are not immune from this influence just because we're human. In terms of human health, we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of research that includes disruption to our circadian cycle. That cycle has an impact on between ten and fifteen
of our genes.
While sleep disorders are logically connected to disruptions in the circadian cycle, other health impacts are not so intuitive. Perhaps the most consistently linked disruption is that to melatonin production. Melatonin is produced at night. Several studies point to increased risk for cancer when melatonin levels are low. Individuals who are exposed to greater levels of artificial lighting after dark are at much greater risk to develop breast cancer. Want a real scare? "
Women living in neighborhoods where it was bright enough to read a book outside at midnight had a 73% higher risk of developing breast cancer than those residing in areas with the least outdoor artificial lighting."
(I'm summarizing here, but if you are particularly interested in this topic, please read "
Missing the Dark
" in the sources.) Other studies point to possible problems for infants (especially those confined to bright hospital settings).
So we can see that exposure to artificial lights after dark isn't necessarily a good thing for anybody. But what about safety? Don't we need streetlights? What if we need a security light to protect our home?
I should point out here that plenty of forces would love for you to spend money, either personally or through your government entities, on artificial lighting. Power companies are likely to say something to the affect of "the Dark Sky folks just want to look at the stars. They don't care about your safety." (
Dusk to Dawn
) I would counter that argument by pointing back to the research that suggests that "my safety," instead of being a trumped up crime problem is more likely a breast cancer problem.
There has been a failure to establish a correlation between outdoor lighting and residential crime suppression in research. The vast majority of burglaries happen during daylight or inside lit buildings. There are now several studies which establish a correlation between lighting and breast cancer, however. And who foots the bill for that treatment?
Given the A) lack of support for the argument of crime suppression and the B) documented threats to wildlife and the C) nearly certain risk to human health and development, isn't it time we start re-thinking our outdoor lighting?
The sources below can provide you a great deal of detail about how you can make adjustments to your own environment to ensure your own safety and improve the outdoor habitat for other living things. Shielded lights, motion-activated lighting, bulbs that occupy a different wavelength in the light spectrum (red/orange/yellow, not blue/white), LESS lighting and lighting that addresses only specific needs as opposed to decorating with it--these are all things we can do to help the critters and help ourselves.
Spread the word. Aren't the women in your life worth it?
P.S. My ol
d tool shed was broken into three times. An alarm system did not help. Lighting did not help. Bars on the insides of the windows--worked! That's not research, though. That's just anecdotal. :)