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  • Writer's pictureRick Utting

A Generational Opportunity: Nighttime Lighting

A night sky filled with stars

It was recently reported by DarkSky International that degradation of the night sky is measuring 9% annually instead of the previously forecast 2%.  Is this a problem?  Are we equipped to answer that question?  Do we fully understand the functions of dark and the ecological consequences of a brighter night sky?

Upon hearing the term dark sky, I have found the general public indifferent to the idea of changing their own behavior to see more stars than they already see.  Afterall, the full moon alone degrades our ability to see stars by about tenfold and people don’t really complain about having a moon in the sky.  People seem comfortable with the idea they can travel somewhere dark when they want to stargaze.  There is an equal amount of indifference for the astronomers trying to analyze the depths of space or where the energy is coming from to energize all this light.

Unfortunately, the next rung on the dark sky ladder involves conversation regarding human and ecological health problems caused by nighttime illumination.  This topic usually ruins the party and kills the conversation soon after.  Is there a way to ease into the subject slower?

To help evaluate when a problem actually becomes a problem, consider something easy like your health.  Is a problem born before symptoms appear or much later in the cycle when the problem is obvious?  The risk of answering this question incorrectly is that if you react too soon, you could find yourself fixing a problem that never was.  Conversely, if you live with a developing problem long enough, you will work exponentially harder to stop, fix, reverse, adapt, or lose to the disease.

Astronomers and dark sky advocates have been warning of light pollution for over thirty years, and yet here we are, 9% annual degradation.

urely, we are no longer in the early onset of a brighter night sky conversation. Astronomers and dark sky advocates have been warning of light pollution for over thirty years, and yet here we are, 9% annual degradation. Have we traveled far enough down the path to unequivocally convince ourselves there is a night sky problem? I’m sure nobody meant to do any harm. What are the unintended consequences of using anthropogenic light at night? Is it time to sound an alarm or deal with the aftermath?

To temper my own emotions, I think back to some physics of human behavior. I recall two laws very well. One, Advocacy: For any crusade, there exists a champion who can make the movement work, at least for a while. Is this the role DarkSky International is currently playing? Two, Burn Out: We are all introduced to most “big ideas” with great fanfare, convinced to climb aboard with passion, engage with enthusiasm, only to see ideas practiced partially, gradually forgotten, and eventually dropped. To get your attention, subsequent big ideas are forced to be more sensationalized to overcome the cynicism created from earlier failures. Is this where we are?

Here are two conclusions I am almost certain of. Skyglow was not in the dictionary 100 years ago, and one group alone will not identify and solve the problems associated with a brighter night sky. Faced with a generational opportunity, lighting professionals will need to participate, recognize the limitations of their reach, and educate other decision makers to help unify any movement. If we don’t do the work, who will?

Can we do more than pull our shades and turn off our porch lights? Yes, absolutely.

Approximately 250 million people in the United States have the ability to purchase and install an outdoor light at night. Amazon and The Home Depot have made it easy. Approximately .01% (25,000) of this population will attend LightFair and/or read this article. Would it be fair to say the reach of lighting professionals does not go far enough? Do we have outdoor lighting knowledge that needs to go viral? Can we do more than pull our shades and turn off our porch lights? Yes, absolutely.

Fortunately, not every outdoor light is installed by the general population. There are many big users of outdoor lighting found regionally, so it’s possible lighting practitioners, advocates, ecologists, and others yet unknown, can make an impact if we reach the right decision makers. With a seat at the table, most decision makers understand some exterior lighting is appropriate and necessary for the safety of people at night. However, because the effects of light pollution can persist 120 miles from the source, have we properly communicated how to do it responsibly?

Lighting standards and guidelines are available for us to learn from, and advocate for. Contacting your local city officials to discuss a lighting ordinance is a good start. Why to light, what to light, how much light to use, when to light, and what color of light should be at the core of any lighting ordinance. Referencing the IES/IDA Five Principles for Responsible Outdoor Lighting can help this effort. Said more simply, can we help make outdoor lighting useful (why to light), targeted (what to light), low (only enough for the task), controlled (when to light), and warmer (color of light)?

The five principles are something the lighting industry has learned over the past thirty years.  What is there for us to learn next?  More research and understanding are needed regarding nighttime applications, visibility, safety, and the unintended consequences of skyglow on human health and the ecological/wildlife impact.  Everything we know and have yet to learn will be needed to inform future outdoor lighting design.

Five Principles for Responsible Outdoor Lighting
Source: Illuminating Engineering Society: Five Principles for Responsible Outdoor Lighting

Now almost two years old, the IES is putting forth an Outdoor Nighttime Environment (ONE) Committee.  The ONE Committee is working hard to identify the topics surrounding anthropogenic light at night. Its charter is to seek out research, scientific analysis, and subject matter experts to help inform recommendations for outdoor lighting applications. More help is welcomed and collectively we must work harder to bring scientists and decision makers together.  Already in motion is new environmental research being discussed by an IES Ecological Advisory Group which will help inform us about the ecological effects of light quantity and spectrum at night.  Secondarily, these findings will make their way into new and updated IES standards to help lighting practitioners and municipalities establish lighting zones, including those spaces that are sensitive and needing protection.  

Standards alone will not be a solution, and the ONE Committee is just one piece of the puzzle. Education, marketing, code updates, and regional cooperation will be required to effectively alter lighting in the nighttime environment.  Ultimately, we may discover we have a problem, and if we do, we don’t want it to be too late to flip the switch.

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