Light pollution presents fixable environment threat

David Bordelon

A recent study showed that 80 percent of Americans are unable to see the Milky Way due to light pollution, and 99 percent of us live under light polluted skies. This is not only an aesthetic tragedy, as for millennia humans have gazed and wondered at the stars, but also can lead to psychological and ecological problems. While there is little to be done right now in terms of lessening light pollution, we can start by recognizing its effects and over time work to eliminate it from obscuring our night skies.

Ask any local about the stars in Austin and you will learn they’re invisible. To truly see the stars in their full glory UT students have to leave Austin and travel all the way to the McDonald Observatory, a UT owned astronomical observatory in east Texas that is about a seven hour drive from campus. The loss of this aesthetic experience, which inspired many aspects of human life — stories, religions, science, poetry and more — can only be regarded as a great tragedy. However, while this is a subjective, scientifically unprovable negative of light pollution, there are many problems it presents that we can see and measure.

A primary problem of light pollution, or excessive and visually obtrusive artificial light, is that it alters our circadian rhythm, a kind of built in 24-hour clock that affects many aspects of our physiology. Though it is a built in clock, it adjusts itself to outside factors, light being a primary factor. When sundown would indicate to our bodies night is arriving, the ever-present light from light pollution indicates the opposite and throws off the whole rhythm. This has been proven to have various effects, including obesity, diabetes, some cancers and mood disorders. One study concluded light pollution is “significantly associated with depressive symptoms.”

On top of issues light pollution presents to humans, it also disrupts natural processes in ecosystems. Migrating and nocturnal birds use light from the stars and moon to guide them, but when they encounter light-polluted areas, they can become confused and crash into bright areas, such as tall buildings, lighthouses and towers. In 1954, over a two night span, 50,000 birds died by following the lights at an air force base and crashing into the ground. Predators that use the cover of night to hunt can lose their cover from overly-bright areas, and baby turtles, who detect the ocean by the bright horizon above it, can be distracted and instead move towards artificial light. A recent study even correlates artificial light to earlier springtime, as the light causes trees to bud earlier than they should. All of these and other changes could have unknown and disastrous ecological effects, possibly destroying entire ecosystems that rely on well-balanced, set patterns of life.

Light pollution also leads to massive economic waste. The National Optical Astronomy Observatory estimates $2 billion worth of energy per year is wasted in the U.S. by poorly-aimed outdoor lights. In addition, the burning of fossil fuels to create this wasted light is in turn wasted and creates more air pollution. 30 million barrels of oil are used yearly in the U.S. to light the night sky.

The negative effects of light pollution are myriad and, as the problem has not received too much research, many effects are probably unknown. Light pollution fundamentally alters the dichotomy between light and dark, which guided evolution for millions of years. However, with acknowledgment of the problem we can start to avoid these problems. According to researchers at the McDonald Observatory, tackling light pollution is “90 percent education and 10 percent technology.” With shields on outdoor lights to direct all light downward, timers to prevent wasted light, and in general lowering the levels of outdoor light to more appropriate levels, light pollution can be minimized. And then maybe, we can see the lost stars once again.

Bordelon is a philosophy junior from Houston.