When you hear the word pollution, the Milky Way is probably not the first thing that comes to mind (unless, of course, you’re talking about the iconic blue-plastic wrapped chocolate bar).
However, according to the IDA – the International Dark Sky Association – light pollution is a serious issue and because of it, many people on earth have never seen the original Milky Way – our galaxy, home of the sun and moon and canvas for an estimated 100 billion stars.
But what is light pollution, and, beyond the possibility of engendering FOMO* among those that live in our brightly illuminated urban areas, does it really have a significant effect on the life of our planet?
According to the IDA, it very much does, and in fact, science shows that the reduction of darkness can have alarming side effects on the environment, human health, energy consumption and our safety.
First, artificial night light disrupts plant growth and confuses animals. Migrating birds can crash into buildings and turtle hatchlings mistakenly journey toward onshore glows instead of heading toward the shimmer and safety of the ocean.
For humans, artificial light disrupts circadian sleeping patterns and increases the risk of developing obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, breast cancer and more. If poorly designed, bright streetlights can impair driver and pedestrian vision, causing unnecessary accidents and danger.
So where does all this light pollution come from, and how long has it been a problem?
According to the IDA, light pollution is a side effect of industrialisation, and has become a growing concern over the past 100 years or so. With sources of light pollution including buildings, advertising, factories and sporting venues, the biggest culprit is perhaps not what you’d expect: the inconspicuous and humble common streetlight.
Often using traditionally shaped, ‘round’ bulbs, streetlights not only light up what’s beneath them, but also the sky above and to all sides. It’s an inefficient, und unnecessary, use of light – and energy.
“Even if you don’t care anything about stargazing, this should worry you,” said stellar astronomer, Lucianne Walkowicz, in a TEDx talk in 2012, “because it means that 60-70% of energy we use to light the outdoors is wasted by blotting out the stars.”
So what’s the bright side (pun intended)?
It’s here that the IDA’s mission to preserve and protect our precious dark skies comes in. Along with educating the public and policymakers on the importance of night sky conservation and providing assistance and research into responsible outdoor lighting, the IDA also certifies International Dark Sky Places.
Currently, there are 120 certified Dark Sky Places worldwide, which fall into one of six categories: communities, parks, reserves, sanctuaries and urban night sky places. Locations of certified Dark Sky Places can be found on the IDA’s interactive Dark Sky Places map. In Australia, Warrumbungle National Park near Coonabarabran in NSW is Australia’s only certified Dark Sky Park, and in May this year, our very own Nature Tourism certified Australian Age of Dinosaurs became Australia’s first certified Dark Sky Sanctuary.
Whether you’re an avid star-spotter, aspiring astronomer or want to do your part in baby turtles achieving their adult potential, there are a few things you can do to help combat light pollution:
- Educate yourself. Check out the IDA website (www.darksky.org) for great resources and informative blog articles.
- Only use lighting when and where it’s needed.
- If safety is a concern, install motion detector lights and timers.
- Properly shield all outdoor lights.
- Keep your blinds down and curtains drawn to keep light inside.
- Become a citizen scientist and help to measure light pollution (check out this website for more info).
- Choose LEDs and compact fluorescents (CFLs), which can help reduce energy use and protect the environment, but make sure these are warm-white bulbs. Also make sure you read this myth-busting article on LED lights, first.
- Dimmers, motion sensors and timers can help to reduce average illumination levels and save energy.
- Visit a certified Dark Sky Place and tell your friends and family how special they are. With experience comes appreciation, and with appreciation comes protection.
Some of our certified operators offer amazing stargazing experiences! Check out:
- Earth Sanctuary World Nature Centre (NT)
- Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary (SA)
- Thala Beach Nature Reserve (QLD)
What’s your favourite star-gazing place in Australia? Let us know in the comments below!
[Header image: The Milky Way from Warrumbungle National Park / Bill Hatcher]
*FOMO = fear of missing out