By Kitty Mayo
Let there be light may be one of the best known catch phrases in our age, but many are beginning to dispute the wisdom of letting light reign around the clock. Calling light one of the most pervasive environmental alterations, scientists, elected officials and artists are surging to the light pollution movement.
Fifty miles up the North Shore from Duluth, the little town of Beaver Bay is trailblazing night sky preservation. Mayor Linda Malzac says her campaign to make the town “the most star friendly city in the U.S.” is a grassroots effort. A viewing platform at the highest point in the city is being planned, and streetlights have been modified to shine downward.
“The idea started with our comprehensive city planning meetings with residents, and we are asking homeowners and businesses to use star friendly lighting to cut down on light pollution,” Malzac said.
Paul Bogard, author of the book “The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light,” says the tension between safety and nighttime lighting is one of the primary hurdles in the dark sky debate. Bogard says it’s our ancestral fear of the dark talking to us, but that science contradicts what we think is common sense.
“We think the bad guys are there in the dark, but a lot of wasted light is shining in our eyes, and casting shadows where the bad guys can hide,” said Bogard, who adds there is no research to support the suggestion that brighter lighting creates an environment more secure from crime.
Unnecessary light can actually decrease security, and Bogard says it’s poor economics. Energy and money is being wasted on lights shining in every direction, and far above our eye level.
“Let’s have light where we need it and not anywhere else. We need it to shine down on the ground where we are walking and driving,” Bogard said.
Malzac added that in Beaver Bay, the most compelling information they learned dispelled myths about lighting safety.
“We all just think brighter lights outside are safer, but we found that’s not always true,” Malzac said of a striking demonstration that shocked city residents.
“We were shown a picture of a backyard at night with a very bright garage light and the yard was empty, but when that same picture was taken in lower light, it was such a surprise to see a person standing there,” said Malzac, who is now advocating shields to point light down, along with the installation of motion detectors and less blue light to keep her city safe.
A science just at the dawn of its existence, the initial studies on the effects of artificial lights at night have revealed some disturbing results. According to the new World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness, one-third of the planet’s inhabitants cannot see the Milky Way, and more than 50 percent of the U.S. land surface is affected by light pollution.
Disruptions in circadian rhythm through chronic exposure to light is a known health hazard, contributing to sleep disorders that are tied to many major diseases. Humans are especially sensitive to blue light, the wavelength of light emitted from our electronic devices, TVs and many LED streetlights.
Randy Larson, organizer of Duluth’s week-long “Celebrate the Night” event last month, said that while the first generation of LED street lighting brought with it a massive improvement in energy efficiency, it brought a very blue light to city streets.
“The technology has improved, and now we can have the efficiency without as much blue wavelength, but we need to look at how to change the color temperature of LEDs where they already exist,” said Larson, who is advocating shields to adapt currently installed blue LEDs.
Mary Stewart Adams, director of Michigan’s Headlands International Sky Park, says they have received an overwhelmingly positive response from residents, and are drawing thousands of people each year from around the world.
The 600-acre dark sky park was only the sixth of its kind when it was formed in 2011. Now, there are over 40 dark sky parks in the country, and with popularity growing, they have built a new waterfront event center and observatory to handle the influx of visitors.
“It’s a huge draw for tourism, especially being on a Great Lake where people love the freshwater that does something to the mood of the soul quite differently than the ocean,” Stewart Adams said.
A self-described star lore historian, Stewart Adams believes that protecting wilderness areas from light trespass is critical for quality of life.
“We need to be close to that natural night sky. It’s one of the reasons people come to Duluth, it’s part of our human need to see the stars for artistic and scientific inspiration,” she said.
She defines light trespass as light that is spilling into a space where it is not needed, like into your bedroom window from a neighbor’s yard light, or into the wilderness from a city many miles away.
“The dark sky movement is not saying light isn’t needed, but we need to do the right kind of planning, decision making, and creative touch for lighting,” Steward Adams said.
Larson, a member of the Dark Sky Duluth chapter of the International Dark Sky Association, said that astro-tourism is one of the fastest growing segments in the tourism industry. Cities like Reykjavik, Iceland, are turning down the lights to attract visitors.
“As the rest of the world becomes brighter, our darkness becomes more valuable,” Larson said. Strategically set with the backdrop of Lake Superior providing a sea of darkness, the North Shore is one of the darker places east of the Mississippi.
“It’s an incredibly complex system, and we need to look at all the aspects of efficiency, city planning, health implications and environment impacts,” Larson said.
Most important to Bogard are the environmental effects of light pollution.
“There are dire impacts of unnecessary light on ecology. So many creatures depend on darkness for moving, feeding, mating that it’s making it that much harder for them to survive,” Bogard said.
“There’s something very special in northern Minnesota that a lot of places no longer have, and there’s no reason to waste or lose that,” said Bogard, who sees this as an opportunity for the region to save money spent on energy and capitalize on a mecca for natural sky viewers from around the world.
Beaver Bay hopes to have a stargazing platform in place by next summer, and Malzac said they want to inspire other North Shore communities to join them. While Malzac admits that developing a positive reputation is good for business, she emphasized the importance of taking action to preserve the natural state of the night sky for everyone’s well being.
“It’s good for people and the environment, animals and the trees. They all need their rest!” Malzac said.