A New Push to Turn Off the Lights in 2009By Clara Moskowitz
December 31, 2008
Astronomers are fed up. One fifth of the world's population cannot see the Milky Way because street lamps and building lights are too bright. So scientists are mounting a new campaign, called Dark Skies Awareness, aiming to reduce light pollution as part of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy.
"Reducing the number of lights on at night could help conserve energy, protect wildlife and benefit human health," astronomer Malcolm Smith of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile wrote in a commentary Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Smith points out that billions of dollars of light is needlessly shined into the sky each year. Beyond the waste of money and energy, this light is blocking people's view of the heavens.
"Without a direct view of the stars, mankind is cut off from most of the universe, deprived of any direct sense of its huge scale and our tiny place within it," Smith wrote.
Plus, lights confuse and harm wildlife. For example, millions of birds in North America die every year because their migration patterns are disrupted by errant light. And baby sea turtles hatched in the sand often mistakenly head toward cities, instead of the sea, because they are lured by artificial lights.
Preliminary research even suggests that light at night is harmful to human health, potentially reducing the normal production of melatonin in our bodies, which suppresses cell division in cancerous tissue.
There is cause for hope, though. Some cities have made improvements in laws and regulations governing light. For example, new lighting codes in New York require dimmers and lights that are activated by motion sensors in many buildings. And Toronto's Fatal Light Awareness program encourages buildings to turn lights off during bird migration season. The 2009 Dark Skies Awareness project plans a range of programs and events to raise public awareness of the issue and argue to lawmakers about the impacts of light pollution.
Image: Chicago at night.
(Revised December 2008)