If you’ve followed any sort of news source over the past few months, you might expect that space is trying to destroy the planet. From the meteor explosion over Russia in February to last week’s massive solar flare, it seems there are all types of extraterrestrial threats that can strike at any moment, without warning.
While it’s true there are asteroids dangerously close to Earth, none present an immediate threat, and we only have our eyes on all of them to prevent any more surprises. Solar flares, too, are not the threat we think they are. Their frequency will continue to rise until the end of 2013 as part of a natural 11-year cycle, and though they can cause radio blackouts and satellite interference, no solar flare, no matter how powerful, presents a lethal threat to humans.
Rather than be concerned at these relatively minor issues, perhaps focus on those that are already present in our world and can be prevented. Environmental reform is a hot-button issue, with many measures aimed at cleaning up greenhouse gas emissions and stopping oil spills, like that of the Pegasus pipeline in Arkansas a few weeks ago.
While cleaning up these types of pollution is vital, there are other forms that do not get enough attention yet have a similarly detrimental impact on the environment. At last week’s Emerging Writers Festival, author Paul Bogard read excerpts from his forthcoming book The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. In the book, he investigates light pollution and the toll it has on society. Beyond the spiritual and philosophical effects, there are actually legitimate, scientific impacts on human health and the environment. Our overuse of artificial lighting poisons the night sky without us even realizing it, which Bogard illuminated to those who did not think of light pollution as a problem.
The flood of light at all hours of the night can have dramatic health effects on humans, from psychological illnesses like higher stress and anxiety, to bodily diseases, like fatigue and heart disease. The World Health Organization even lists “circadian disruption,” or irregular sleep patterns, as a probable carcinogen that can lead to higher incidences of cancer. The overabundance of light drains the body’s natural production of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate human internal rhythms. Any light, either natural or artificial, can cause a drop in this hormone, though artificial light has the greatest effect, and keeping computers or other light sources on at night will act during your sleep, when melatonin is supposed to be produced. The decrease in melatonin may be the link to cancer and other diseases and remains a hot topic of research.
Beyond human concerns, the ecological effect that our light pollution has can greatly affect many species of animals, especially those near cities or other well-lit areas. Endangered sea turtles lay their eggs by night, and hatchlings use the contrast in light and dark to find their way to the ocean. With too much lighting, the turtles may not lay their eggs at all, or hatchlings may become disoriented and not make their way to the water.
Many birds and insects migrate at night, and the presence of low-level lighting can also disorient them, sending them crashing into buildings and radio towers. Between 98 million to almost a billion birds die each year from nighttime collisions, with many of them resulting from impacts with artificially-lit structures. Also, naturally nocturnal animals cannot adapt well to well-lit nights, and many of these species are forced to migrate from their habitats in search of darker areas, which are becoming few and far between, especially in North America and Europe.
While it is not as apparent as air pollution or as toxic as water pollution, light pollution is still a pressing issue to those who not only appreciate the darkness but are concerned about the wellbeing of people and the environment. Unlike those other forms of pollution, there are ways to prevent light pollution around your own home and community.
Shield yours lights, opt for LED lighting whenever possible, and keep the lights off except when necessary. Not only is it good for your energy bills, but the night sky will look all the darker for it.
Questions? Email Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org.