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Light pollution with a slight chance of stars

Sydney skyline at nightYou see the Southern Cross everywhere lately — on T-shirts, tattoos and train stations. It's a pity then that pretty soon we won't be able to see it in the actual sky.

Who did not, as a child, lie on their backs and wonder at the night sky? Searching for the familiar shape of the Saucepan or the red glow of Mars, gasping at the heart-skipping sight of a shooting star and marvelling at what Byron called, 'the poetry of heaven'. Today when I look out from our inner-city backyard, I am lucky if I can count 50 individual stars. And most of those are probably aeroplanes.

When was it decided that the replacement of our night sky with a near-blank canvas was acceptable? Bit by bit, every year, a few more of Shakespeare's 'blessed candles of the night' are extinguished by the ever-brightening domes that hang over our cities.

According to the International Astronomical Union, two billion people — almost 30 per cent of the world's population — cannot see the Milky Way. And as the view is obscured, so too is that powerful reminder that we are part of something much grander, an insignificant dot in a vast and expanding universe.

Our love of all things light and bright has killed our access to true darkness. From households that love the 'security' of a well-lit backyard to advertising execs who think we really need neon reminders of our banking options at 4.00 am, a large proportion of lighting is probably unnecessary.

Even lighting regarded as essential, such as street lights and flood lighting on public buildings, can be shamefully inefficient, with an estimated 30 per cent of the glow being pointlessly directed skyward where it lights up water and dust particles, contributing to that sickly orange halo.

Our desperate need for something like perpetual daylight can in part be attributed to a childlike fear of the bogeyman and the unfounded assumption that more and brighter lighting will make us safe.

Certainly public lighting has a positive effect on people's sense of security but studies of its actual effect on crime rates are inconclusive at best. In fact in a 2008 experiment in Essex where all street lights were turned out between midnight and 5.30 am, a marked decrease in crime was observed. A similar trend has also been measured in cities that have experienced long-term power outages.

Earlier this month there was a fortnight-long worldwide program to measure the brightness of the night sky, GLOBE at Night. And tomorrow night, we will see the return of Earth Hour, where homes and businesses are encouraged to turn out the lights for one hour.

As well as urging us to think about the resources and money wasted in over-lighting our cities, both campaigns encourage us to think about darkness differently — not as something to be feared and conquered, but as something precious, a link between us and all time and space.

Unlike other forms of pollution, light pollution is a relatively simple one to combat. By getting rid of all unnecessary lighting, using lower wattage lamps and installing shields to prevent light spillage, we would instantly start to repaint the night sky. Do nothing and soon the only place we'll see starlight is when it's projected on to the ceiling of a planetarium.

Back at my house, it's not only us humans who lack a good night's sleep because of the ever-present glow. The Indian Mynahs start their song at 3.00 am, fooled into thinking that day is breaking. A nocturnal trip to the bathroom no longer requires a blind fumble through the dark. And if it's too bright to get back to sleep afterwards, there's enough light breaking through the curtains to read a few chapters of Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated without even turning on the bedside lamp.

If you travel away from the city lights, it's hard not to be awe-struck by the scale and vastness of the twinkling lights in the sky. On a moonless night they shine so brightly that it seems impossible we could have ever wiped them from our city skies, let alone wiped them from our minds and our children's imaginations.

Vincent Van Gogh said 'the sight of the stars make me dream'. When we insist on over-lighting our cities, it's not just sleep we're losing — we're also losing the chance to dream.

Sarah McKenzieSarah McKenzie is a freelance writer.

Topic tags: sarah mckenzie, earth hour, globe at night



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Existing comments

Light pollution should be an interest in building industry. Architects do like lights I guess but as sort of eliminating light pollution and energy saving, they can design better.

The taste of natural darkness at night is quite wonderful as it gives the scene of the sky and if you're on a high altitude, you can get some nostalgia by seeing the surroundings.

AZURE | 26 March 2010  

I've long rued the growing light pollution. We live on the outskirts of Brisbane and when we came here one of the things I delighted in was the regular changes in the quality of darkness.
When whole industrial areas are a sea of light, presumably to stop crimes I have certainly wondered if by turning off all lights in these areas more crime would be provented as the unauthoriseed lights would be obvious.

Street lighting, non-existent when we arrived, has incresased and now many of the homes have strong outside lighting. The night sky here has unfortunately lost muvh of its majestic beauty. Yes a great pity.

Patricia Ryan | 26 March 2010  

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God's handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
-- Psalm 19.

Brian McKinlay | 26 March 2010  

Sarah is able in one short opening paragraph to focus attention and almost compels us to read on for more of the same.

We are not disappointed. This insightful young lady is an asset to entertaining journalism. Look forward to the next article.

Reg and Lorraine Hogan | 26 March 2010  

Wasn't it Kant who said: "Two things hold me in awe - the stars in the firmament and the moral law of God written on the hearts of man"

Joe Edmonds | 26 March 2010  

Lighting at airports is deflected down so that an airport seen from a high place looks like a dark patch amid all the lights.

Why aren't all lights, street, building etc deflected like this? True, we would miss our wonderful views of the urban lights but just think of the beautiful lights we could see above our heads. I've marvelled at the night sky near Uluru National Park and in the Warrumbungles in NSW. Oh how I miss those stars, living as I do in suburban Adelade.

Margaret T | 26 March 2010  

With no intention of becoming a luddite or wanting to eschew genuine human progress, I agree with Sarah and would like to point out that night time lighting only promotes and even allows for, inhuman activity and even crime.

What about that very sad, but entirely preventable horror crash in Canberra which has so far claimed four lives. What were a father, a mother doing with their small child out so late at night (10:15pm), not returning from a visit with family, but actally going to someone's place? And if cars didn't have headlights - a special licence should be necessary for a car to have emergency night time lighting ( fog lights of course a standard fitting, as well as smaller lights, but no head lights), the other driver would not have been out stealing cars so late at night.
Yes, get rid of car lights, night time lighting of the outside and see the difference, we could enjoy the night sky again and have a safer and a better society.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 26 March 2010  

The Australian outback is blessed with a wonderful night sky, quite enough light for a midnight stroll. This is partly due to the way we look toward the centre of the galaxy by looking up. Yet I find that most of our friends insist on shining torches on the track, even though this actually makes it harder to find your way. Of course we blind ourselves by doing this rather than discovering where to put our feet. Is there a lesson to this?

Gerry Harant | 26 March 2010  

Light pollution is a menace of our times and an unnecessary one at that. I hope everyone will join in Earth Hour. It reminds people, businesses and governments that a lot of folk care about dark skies and want the sky above them to be free of light pollution.

You might also want to join us over at http://darkskies2010.com/, were we are celebrating the inspiration that dark skies give us until 10 April.

Andy Boddington | 26 March 2010  

Great article. Well I remember dropping below the light horizon on a cold night in the Blue Mountains in the late 1987 and seeing through my binoculars the supernova in the Majellanic Clouds. An truly amazing experience.

And yes, Earth Hour is a wonderful event. But why aren't we doing it every night of the week?

Fred | 26 March 2010  

Carmel, California, has no street lights. They believe that street lighting is totally unnecessary as all motor vehicles have adequate headlights and pedestrians can use flashlights. Besides keeping the streets dark keeps out burglars as they have trouble seeing where they want to do their dirty work. Carmel CA wants no light pollution. So why do any of our towns and cities in Austalia?

Norbert Kelvin | 26 March 2010  

I live in the country 12 km from town and so can and do lie on my back and watch the sky. We go out just before bed and give thanks for such a gift. The dreams are great.

jorie ryan | 27 March 2010  

For anyone who'd like fully documented accounts of the adverse effects of excessive light at night, try the light pollution page of the Astronomical Society of Victoria Inc at www.asv.org.au

Dr Barry Clark | 27 March 2010  

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