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Veteran stargazer laments on 50 years of runaway light pollution

The U.S. at night.
The U.S. at night.

Joe Rao, skywatching columnist for, has just posted a piece about a phenomenon many astronomers, especially long-time stargazers, can understand: light pollution. In his article, Rao recalls nights 50 years ago, when he was starting his lifelong pursuit of the stars and contrasts them with now, when the night sky is often literally unrecognizable thanks to artificial lighting.

Any astronomer knows that there is nothing like artificial lighting, commonly termed “light pollution,” to ruin a good night's observing. As an extension, after one views at a true dark sky site, it may be hard to ever want to observe from home again as the situation will seem utterly depressing. For people who are not used to looking up at the night sky, there are still ways to notice all the light. Have you ever looked up in the sky to see red clouds or gone out on a night with freshly fallen snow and found it nearly as bright as day? Well, that's further, non-astronomical proof of light pollution.

So why should non-astronomers care? There are many reasons and it is these cited in the MLO study that sky preservationists hope will convince the non-astronomical public to care.

First: money. Believe it or not, about 50% of all outdoor lighting is wasted. How is this done? Simple, lighting left unshielded emits light in all directions, not just to the ground where it is intended to go. So, for every dollar paid on an electric bill for lighting costs, 50 cents of that is spent on light that serves no purpose other than to light the night sky.

Second: wildlife. Unlike humans, animals don't have clocks with which to tell time. With the increase in artificial light, some species are getting their days and nights mixed up, which can throw off sleep patterns and thus, through the creation of tired animals, increase chances of predation. Also, it is thought that some birds use the Moon and stars for navigation. Obviously, without the starry signposts, the birds may be getting lost. Perhaps the best known problem of light pollution is with sea turtle babies. Which are increasingly finding their way away from the ocean to to lighting on coastal cities.

Third: human health. Believe it or not research is starting to show that not even we human are immune from the effect of artificial lighting. With all the extra light, the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep, is impacted, thus leading to sleep disorders, which can then branch out to create other health problems. Some new research even suggests that the artificial lighting/the interruption of natural sleep patterns can create an increased risk for some cancers. However, it should be known that this research has just begun and the exact reason for the correlations is unknown.

For us in the Cleveland area, light pollution is a way of life. By looking at a light pollution map, one can see that the Cleveland metro area is at a level 8 to 9 on the Bortle Scale of light pollution. What does that mean? Well, in central Cleveland, one can forget about seeing anything but the brightest stars and/or constellations. The rest of Northeast Ohio isn't much better, either, with the Milky Way being invisible except overhead on all but the darkest nights.

In short, there are many reasons for caring about light pollution, even for non-astronomers. Between money, health, and the environment, light pollution does much more harm than just washing-out the beautiful night sky.

For more info:
International Dark Sky Association
Dark Skies Awareness

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