By Harmon Marien, contributing writer
Photos from National Geographic
Darkness at its purest form is in my opinion the most underrated, underappreciated natural phenomenon on planet earth. Pure darkness reveals the real night sky, which is littered with other objects in our solar system. It is an astonishing sight and one that is not seen by many anymore. The over and immature usage of artificial light has resulted in light pollution that litters most of the globe. It creates a visual barrier between us and our galaxy while limiting and damaging our world at the same time. Light pollution affects our health, takes away our ability to experience our solar system, and ruins our ecosystems.
Light pollution is the “inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light” (“Light Pollution”). It is broken up into four categories: glare, skyglow, light trespass, and clutter (“Light Pollution”). “Glare is the excessive brightness that causes visual discomfort, skyglow is the brightening of the night sky over inhabited areas, light trespass is the light falling where it is not intended or needed, and clutter is the bright, confusing, and excessive grouping of light sources” (“Light Pollution”). The technologically advanced, industrialized world has caused light pollution through such sources as billboards, safety lighting, streetlights, and floodlights. In most cases, the issue is not even with the fact that the lights are being used, but instead that they are inefficient. How bad is light pollution? “A 2016 study by World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness concluded that 80 percent of the world’s population lives under skyglow caused by light pollution, and 99 percent of the US and Europe’s population can’t experience natural light” (“Light Pollution”). This means that 99 percent of the US and Europe are unable to look up into the night sky and see a clear picture of the stars and surrounding solar system, but instead are seeing a filtered or sometimes completely blocked view of the night sky.
I am very fortunate to live in the area I do. According to “The Light Pollution Map,” my hometown of Eagle River, Wisconsin does have a minimal amount of light pollution, but within a 20-to-30-minute drive, you can access some of the few “unpolluted” views of the night sky. Because I have spent a large portion of my life in Eagle River and the surrounding area, I have been able to experience numerous night skies. Not only this, but I have seen it through multiple stages of the night, such as right after sunset, the dead of the night, and right before sunrise. Playing “connect the dots” with the starry sky has been a favorite of mine since I was very young. I have spent numerous nights lying on the dock, in the yard, or even just looking out the window at the surprisingly lit sky. On occasion, a colorful circle will appear that is no bigger than the stars. When this happens, I take out my phone and open my “Star and Planet Finder” app, which after I point it at the colorful object, will tell me which planet I am getting a glimpse of. Lastly, one of my favorite things about the night sky is that the moonlight makes fish’s eyes glow. The light reflects off their eyes as they swim by, giving away their presence. I have spent hours sitting on the dock or in the boat watching them swim past me.
Although there are several activities I like to partake in revolving around the night sky, the nightly view has a way of transforming your thoughts. As I gaze up at the night sky, I always reach a state of inner peace. Something about staring up and realizing how far away the stars and planets are and thinking about the endless black abyss that represents space makes me realize I’m just a little human. This creates inner peace for me because I realize that the mistakes I do make are not as big of a deal as they typically seem, and the moments where I think everyone is watching are nothing compared to me in this universe. I also reach inner peace through the reminder of how beautiful this earth is. As a Christian, these moments grow my faith and make me feel blessed to be living on this earth. I feel blessed to live in the town I do with the family I do. Looking up into the night sky causes me to reflect. My mind automatically jumps to all the positives in my life and my mood inevitably improves. It’s a near bulletproof way to end a bad day and turn your view around. It’s something I truly believe everyone should be able to experience and needs to experience in their lifetime.
As I came to school at McKendree I first learned about light pollution and was honestly in disbelief that it could be possible. The very first night after I had learned about light pollution, I walked outside my dorm a little after midnight to look up into what I was expecting to be a clear, starry sky. I was shocked to find that although the sky was clear it came across as very dull, plain, and almost malnourished. It looked watered out and foggy compared to what I was used to seeing. It made me feel sad and lonely, and it felt like something had been taken away from me. As I walked back up the stairs to my room, I realized that I felt like my escape from the world had been taken, and the inability to see the vast night sky made me feel lonely and trapped. It puzzled me to think that there were people who had never seen a real night sky before. That had never seen a real starry night or a real moonlit sky. That had never seen the real dark.
I started thinking about what people who didn’t see an unpolluted night sky were missing out on. People who don’t have the ability or never have seen a real night sky haven’t had the opportunity to reflect on who they are and what they are to this universe. They’ve never been put into that situation where just a view forces your mind into appreciating the world and our solar system. They’ve never gotten the experience to see another planet with the naked eye, or see the Milky Way, or see the northern lights. To me, these should almost be fundamental human rights-a given that everyone will experience it in their lifetime, or even multiple times throughout their life. It’s an experience that truly changes how you think about yourself and the world around you.
Not only would we as humans benefit from the comeback of natural darkness, but animals in all ecosystems would too. Mammals of all types are confused and attracted to unnatural lights (Klinkenborg 241). This creates a bunch of problems, such as wild animals and pet confrontations, as well as these animals being hit by motor vehicles. Some nocturnal animals such as opossums and badgers are diminishing because of their inability to hide in the dark. They have become easy prey to their predators. Lastly, the sea turtles. Mother turtles seek dark, unlit beeches in order to have a successful hatch, but these habitats are becoming far less common. When the turtles lay their eggs on beeches with artificial light nearby, the hatchling turtles get confused with the artificial light and mistake it for the lightning horizon. This results in them crawling away from the water eventually resulting in their death. Florida alone has hundreds of thousands of baby turtle deaths every year because of light pollution (Klinkenborg 242).
Songbirds and seabirds are also mesmerized by the unnatural light and end up confusing themselves to the point of circling until they drop to their death. This often happens around marine oil platforms out in the ocean or spotlights on the ocean’s shore (Klinkenborg 241). Many migrating birds run into tall, lit buildings as a result of pure confusion. This is most common among young of the year birds who are making their first migration. On top of that, because insects have adapted to gathering around lights at night, bats have had to do the same. The unnatural lights draw insects out of the woods and their natural habitat, with the predators right behind them. Some birds sing at unnatural hours because of their confusion of time, resulting in early breeding. These longer lit days result in longer feeding windows, which skews migrating bird’s migration patterns. An example of this is the Bewick’s swans. They recently have started to put their layer of fat on too quickly, resulting in them starting their migration too early, and arriving at their nesting grounds well before they are ready (Klinkenborg 242). All of these examples are clear examples of how ecosystems of all types, all over the world are being thrown off or destroyed by light pollution. Without a change, these ecosystems may not adapt quick enough, resulting in them never being able to recover. It is vital for these ecosystems and all that inhabit them that light pollution is taken seriously and changed.
While ecosystems across the globe have been trying to adapt, so have humans. Before light pollution, the human eye was very similar to that of a nocturnal animal. The human eye was able to adapt to the dark and allow us to see even though there was a lack of light (Klinkenborg 240). This has been a negative adaptation humans have made because of our bodies’ lack of need to see in the dark. Street lights, lamps, ceiling lights, and all other forms of artificial light have created this problem. Some believe that if artificial light is responsibly taken care of, by being redesigned and turned off when not in use, the human eyes will be able to regain this ability. This however is not the only thing humans would regain because the natural, unfiltered night sky would be restored. According to Kathleen Dean Moore, darkness “feeds a sense of wonder” in the human body, a young person’s great gift (Moore 12). The mystery of the dark opens the human spirit to what is beyond, and the night sky opens a more intimate connection with the natural world (Moore 12). The ability to be creative and imagine what is beyond our world is beneficial to all of us, as this creative thinking is what creates new inventions that improve our quality of life. A more intimate connection with the earth as an entire human race will result in all of us being more thoughtful on how we treat our planet, allowing us to preserve instead of destroy. These are all obvious benefits to getting rid of or diminishing light pollution, resulting in a boost of all of our mental health.
To add to mental health improvements, the movement to improve our light pollution problem would have many physical benefits as well. Darkness at night is vital to our internal clock, because it allows our bodies to release melatonin and fall asleep faster, while throughout the night having a deeper sleep. The abundance of artificial light throws off our circadian rhythm, confusing our bodies when night starts and the day ends. On top of that, studies have shown there may be a correlation between women who live in highly lit neighborhoods and breast cancer (Klinkenborg 243). These are all reasons that not cannot only be affecting us as we speak but also our loved ones.
Although light pollution has already made an effect on our planet and lives, it has a fairly easy solution. Light pollution is the most easily remedied of all forms of pollution, and design fixes in artificial light would quickly reduce its negative effects, as well as save money (Klinkenborg 242). These fixes can be made quickly within some cases immediate results. Our world as a whole has to learn to love the dark. It is vital for our world’s future that we take action against light pollution immediately, for humanity to experience the pure, untouched dark.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Our Vanishing Night.” 50 Essays, edited by Samuel Cohen, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008, pp. 240-243.
“Light Pollution.” International Dark Sky Association, 13 November, 2020, https://www.darksky.org/light-pollution/.
Moore, Kathleen Dean. “The Gifts of Darkness.” Let There Be Night, edited by Paul Bogard, University of Nevada P, 2008, pp. 11-14.