Light Pollution

I confess, I’ve never quite seen what the complaint was here:

A study of pictures of Earth by night has revealed that artificial light is growing brighter and more extensive every year.

Between 2012 and 2016, the planet’s artificially lit outdoor area grew by more than 2% per year.

Scientists say a “loss of night” in many countries is having negative consequences for “flora, fauna, and human well-being”.

The only downside I can see about light pollution is that you can’t see the night sky, which is admittedly very pretty. If this is a cost of living in a big city, being able to see where you’re going, and avoiding being mugged or assaulted, then it’s a small one. If it means that much to you, or any other stargazer, you have options: go and live in mid-Wales, or drive to Scotland or Bodmin Moor. Or take a job on Sakhalin: the visibility of the night sky there was often spectacular, particularly when we went camping way out of town.

It showed that changes in brightness over time varied greatly by country. Some of the world’s “brightest nations”, such as the US and Spain, remained the same. Most nations in South America, Africa and Asia grew brighter.

Yes, they’re getting richer and people generally don’t like having to go to bed at sundown or remain indoors. Africa is still mostly in darkness, as is North Korea (famously). This is not generally considered a good thing.

The nocturnal satellite images – of glowing coastlines and spider-like city networks – look quite beautiful but artificial lighting has unintended consequences for human health and the environment.

Really?

In 2016, the American Medical Association officially recognised the “detrimental effects of poorly designed, high-intensity LED lighting”, saying it encouraged communities to “minimise and control blue-rich environmental lighting by using the lowest emission of blue light possible to reduce glare. The sleep-inducing hormone melatonin is particularly sensitive to blue light.

What’s this got to do with overall levels of outdoor lighting?

A recent study published in the journal Nature revealed that artificial light was a threat to crop pollination – reducing the pollinating activity of nocturnal insects.

That explains the reduced yields in inner-city wheat fields.

Research in the UK revealed that trees in more brightly lit areas burst their buds up to a week earlier than those in areas without artificial lighting.

Causing children to die of surprise.

A study published earlier this year found that urban light installations “dramatically altered” the behaviour of nocturnally migrating birds.

The BBC didn’t even bother linking to this one or naming the study. Which is a shame, because I was curious as to where these birds were ending up.

Prof Kevin Gaston from the University of Exeter told BBC News that humans were “imposing abnormal light regimes on ourselves”.

We’d much rather blunder around in the dark, we just don’t know it.

“You now struggle to find anywhere in Europe with a natural night sky – without that skyglow we’re all familiar with.”

Bollocks. Drive into the middle of France, or up into the Alps.

“For light, it’s just a case of directing it where we need it and not wasting it where we don’t.”

Presumably this chap thinks lighting is something just thrown up willy-nilly with barely any thought.

Dr Kyba said that we could make our urban areas much dimmer and not actually cause any problems for visibility.

“Human vision relies on contrast, not the amount of light,” he explained.

Something hithero unknown to those who make their living in the multi-billion dollar global lighting industry: they’ve been doing it wrong all these years.

If we’re reduced to complaining about light pollution, we’ve solved the big issues facing mankind, haven’t we?

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28 thoughts on “Light Pollution

  1. “Bollocks. Drive into the middle of France, or up into the Alps.”

    Having just literally done that, as I do 3 times a week when I work at work and drive home, I can confirm that up here in the Alps it is indeed Bloody Dark. Brightest thing was a car driving up the other side of the valley. Even in our little pool of light here you only have to walk 100 yds to have an unimpeded view of the night sky.

    I suspect that our Esteemed Professor is an urbanite who doesn’t venture out into the Rest of the World very often.

  2. Let there be light.

    Satellite imagery of the earth at night and the ever growing illumination clusters is way up there on my favourites and according to the EIA it is only going to get brighter, rapidly so, especially in the darker non-OECD parts. This transformation is not confined to illumination as world GDP and jobs are going to boom as well. According to the BP base case, world GDP will double in the next twenty years which is a rate twice as fast as it grew over the last twenty years, this means that we are about see a level of both buyer and seller demand that is unparalleled in history. Its great to be alive during these exciting times.

    “BP Energy Outlook for 2017, world GDP almost doubles through 2035, driven by fast-growing emerging economies, with more than two billion people lifted from low incomes.”

    “Executive summary

    In the International Energy Outlook 2017 (IEO2017) Reference case, total world energy consumption rises from 575 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2015 to 736 quadrillion Btu in 2040, an increase of 28%. Most of the world’s energy growth will occur in countries outside of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) [1], where strong, long-term economic growth drives increasing demand for energy. Non-OECD Asia (including China and India) alone accounts for more than half of the world’s total increase in energy consumption over the 2015 to 2040 projection period. By 2040, energy use in non-OECD Asia exceeds that of the entire OECD by 41 quadrillion Btu in the IEO2017 Reference case (Figure 1).”

  3. As an amateur astronomer, I disagree with your, “If you don’t like it move away attitude”. Light pollution prevents millions from seeing the Milky Way and 1000s of stars – we can’t all live on Dartmoor etc. (and if we did presumably there’d be street lighting there too).
    The observatory at Herstmonceux suffers badly from sky pollution, mainly from Brighton. Most attempts by astronomical pressure groups to encourage councils to use only street lighting which illuminates downwards are met with incomprehension or arrogant dismissal.
    If you’d ever been somewhere totally dark you would really appreciate the awesome (in its true sense, not the american common misuse) wonder of the universe.

  4. As an amateur astronomer,

    Okay, I know light pollution must suck if you’re an amateur astronomer. But that’s about the only downside I can think of.

    Most attempts by astronomical pressure groups to encourage councils to use only street lighting which illuminates downwards are met with incomprehension or arrogant dismissal.

    Most attempts to get the council to empty the fucking bins is met with a similar response.

    If you’d ever been somewhere totally dark

    Does working night shift on a ship in the Sea of Okhotsk count?

  5. Ed, its about two hours drive west for me in order to appreciate the Southern Cross and the big night sky.

  6. I tried to drive to Scotland once, but we were getting such terrible meileage across the Atlantic Ocean that we decided it would be cheaper to fly. And then we had to turn around because our arms got tired, so we never did get there.

    Why is it so dark in Scotland? Don’t they have street lights, and, if not, why not?

  7. I live in the South Downs national park. It’s a certified dark skies zone (or whatever they call it). It’s lovely. There’s probably about a million people within 30 minutes drive of here, so I suspect Mr Prof is exaggerating a touch as to how hard it is to find somewhere away from light pollution.

    It’s a pain in the arse walking back from the pub, though. I’ve gone arse over tit twice.

  8. John Square:

    Yes, I’m one of the million. I’m grateful for it, but it is slightly better than urban areas, and nowhere near as good as some of the more deserted areas of the world I’ve visited. And when you look up at the stars, you can normally see the lights of about a dozen different planes queueing up to land at Gatwick.

  9. Yes, there is too much sky glow. I grew up in southern Arizona near Tucson Arizona. Tucson is one of the astronomical capitals of the world. Every Mountain around there has large Telescopes on it. Pioneering astronomy was, and is done here. Light at night not only mucks up astronomers, it also interferes with wildlife, and many plants too. Try flowering chrysanthemums when you have an outdoor light on them. The plant thinks summer wont end, no shorter days, no fall, hence no flowers. In Tucson Years ago the astronomy community finally imposed on the city leaders to replace the sodium vapor lights with less potent light sources, and new fixtures that prevent light from being thrown up into the night sky. There is no point in wasting energy and light by throwing light up into space where no one needs it. Plants and animals evolved to darkness, or moonlight. Modern lights are simply something living things, including us, did not evolve to deal with. And it isn’t necessary to waste light anyway. Tucson’s streets night lights work fine, but are not so wasteful. Also sky glow from a city can be seen sometimes from hundreds of miles. It is not an unimportant problem.

  10. You have to remember the overall aim of the left (returning us to pre-industrial society) – whining about light pollution is consistent with the cause.

  11. Yes Colin absolutely they really don’t want us to have control over our energy supplies.

    On the subject of non-OECD countries and the cause, I guess we need to accept that it is a lesser evil that thousands of peasants have to die and suffer debilitating illness due to the constant inhaling of particulates emitted by them cooking their food and generating heat inside their unvented huts by burning wood, as opposed to the greater evil of exposing the atmosphere to the poisonous CO2 emitted from other cleaner domestic energy alternatives such as bottled gas and the like.

  12. “If we’re reduced to complaining about light pollution, we’ve solved the big issues facing mankind, haven’t we?”

    We knew that when we were told to end human progress in order to quell the release of carbon dioxide, a harmless inert gas which causes plant life to flourish.

    Sure, there can be “too much light” for some specific activities and processes that require darkness, but “too much light” is a primary indicator that we are making the world safer and more productive. It’s like complaining that we have too much food and need more cabinets.

    I personally think that I hear far too much rap music in my daily life, but I have no right to expect it to go away. If it bothers me personally, I can pay a personal price and structure my own life so as to avoid it.

    If seeing certain stars is important enough to me, I’ll move myself to somewhere within the 95% of the rest of the world where light pollution doesn’t interfere with that, just as I’d move away from an airport that was too noisy.

  13. “If this is a cost of living in a big city, being able to see where you’re going, and avoiding being mugged or assaulted, then it’s a small one.”

    Last Friday, the council came round and replaced all our streetlights with new ones. I have candles that emit more light.

  14. Research in the UK revealed that trees in more brightly lit areas burst their buds up to a week earlier than those in areas without artificial lighting.

    Cos those trees were in cities where it is warmer presumably? Might not be the light.

    Sympathetic as I am to the needs of amateur astronomers, I do not wish to return to the dark ages in order for them to be able to see the Milky Way from the balcony.

    Colin Suttie has it right. Lefties, especially the environ-mentalists, are much like those Puritans who kept predicting that the world was going to end due to the wrath of God and the sins of the wicked. These days it’s Gaia and different sins, but it is the same schtick.

    They won’t be happy until we’re living in caves and eating dung. Although of course they still won’t be happy and will find some new way to oppress us.

  15. MC, rest assured while we are living in caves (or a cardboard box in the middle of the road for the more affluent), the bloody Lefty enviroloons won’t be leading by example.

  16. This slightly contradicts my previous comment but… I visited Tokyo not long after the Tohoku Earthquake and there were a lot of electricity saving measures in place. Walking around at night with the city lights dimmed was quite strange but rather pleasant. Oddly, it made the city quieter (although Tokyo is pretty quiet anyway*) even somewhere like Shinjuku.

    Obviously if I’d been walking around a big US city with similar light levels I’d be in a state of panic, but it was quite soothing.

    *I live in Hong Kong. It’s a noisy place; the locals are a tad shouty.

  17. The best view of the stars I have seen is out in the desert in Egypt. Absolutely gobsmacking. I suspect this has something to do with the religious tendencies of this corner of the world. You look up into the void it stares right back at you.

  18. All this shows is that scientists can be fucking idiots.

    We know one thing about resource use. Jevon’s Paradox. Make something cheaper and we’ll use more of it – that’s not a paradox. The paradox is that making our use of a resource more efficient (like, the electricity to lumens conversion) can lead to our using *more* of the resource itself. Whether this actually happens, depends. Upon the elasticity of demand of the output.

    Yes, jargon, but it means that sometimes, if we – say – make our use of copper to make computers more efficient we might end up using more copper to make many more computers, the same amount to make a bit more, or even less copper making the same number of computers. It’s very difficult indeed to calculate elasticity of something we’ve never done before so the correct answer is that we’ve got to do it to find out.

    About light we know one more thing. Over the historical prices we’ve seen per lumen (ranging from a animal fat wicked lamp in xxxx BC through to CFLs a few years back) artificial light is a normal good. This just means that we spend a constant portion of our incomes on it as our incomes change. This has also been true given the changes in the price per lumen (of course – a change in the price of something we buy is a change in our real incomes).

    So, what might happen as lumens become cheaper? We might use more resources to produce more of them, maybe fewer, the paradox. Given what we know specifically about lumens we expect we’ll spend the same portion of our incomes upon them. So, it becomes cheaper to produce lumens, we’ll have more of them.

    Or, as we could put it, any economist would and could (and many did) tell you that making lighting cheaper by having LEDs would lead to more light being produced. You ignorant fucking fool.

  19. Ah the Jevons paradox reminds me of my old favourite that “hydrocarbons beget more hydrocarbons”.

    So more manufactured light will lead to even more manufactured light, then and due to Moore’s Law the energy efficiency gains in newer light technology will eventually slow down. So in the future we will still continue to have more lights albeit with slower rates of energy efficiency gains in the new light technology.

    And where does that leave us, continuous ever increasing demand for energy.

    No wonder they want to turn the lights off in the West and not switch them on in the first place in non-OCED countries.

  20. We’ve probably been receiving complaints from the Venusians about it.
    “Turn that bloody planet off at night!”

  21. In another life I geologised in Western Australia. A major attraction for me was the chance to swag in the desert. No water = no mosquitos = opportunity to sleep outside.

    One winter I was swagging near Meekathara (thats on the edge of the Australian tropics). Perfect night, clear sky, no moon and no moisture. Light a, fire lay out the swag, retire with a bottle of red and watch the southern sky and meteorites. Fucking magic.

    At dawn I got up and poured a little water into an aluminium basin to freshen up. ZZZt. The water skinned over with ice. In the sub-tropics. Fucking magic.

  22. “As an amateur astronomer, I disagree with your, “If you don’t like it move away attitude”.”

    Pardon my sarcasm but would that mean that an amateur diver living in the middle of the Canadian prairies should be entitled to have the ocean brought to him? 😉

  23. “Perfect night, clear sky, no moon and no moisture. Light a, fire lay out the swag, retire with a bottle of red and watch the southern sky and meteorites.”

    That’s the shot, I also associate this setting with a sense of infinity and a fleeting glimpse of what the Dreamtime means in the indigenous vernacular. I will be pretty disappointed if the Southern Cross was removed from our new flag.

    On night temperature, tropics and geology, I was involved the installation of a primary jaw crusher in a mine in Irian Jaya, 4500m above sea level, 4° S with a glacier below us.

  24. Tim W,

    Thanks for that comment. I remember reading over at your place that people have always spent the same proportion of their incomes on lighting. One could almost imagine that people like being able to see what they’re doing past sundown!

  25. Pardon my sarcasm but would that mean that an amateur diver living in the middle of the Canadian prairies should be entitled to have the ocean brought to him?

    Heh.

  26. “You now struggle to find anywhere in Europe with a natural night sky – without that skyglow we’re all familiar with.”

    Bollocks. Drive into the middle of France, or up into the Alps.

    Doesn’t need to be the middle of France or the Alps – the Prealpes will do just fine. Take a drive on the Route Napoleon (what used to be the RN85 until the French government changed how it financed roads) from Grasse heading Northish.
    Grasse. Lights everywhere. When you look back to the coast from the top – say near the Grasse prison – it’s quite impressive and even sort of pretty. Hop over the slight ridge to St Valier and the light dims.
    Hop over the next ridge and get down in the depths and there’s no light.
    You are this point about 20km from the coast (Cannes) as the crow flies.

    I suspect there are places closer to the coast where you could get the same effect (say up the top of the Col de Vence) but I’ve driven the Grasse one and it is striking how each ridge gives you more light

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