The Effects of Light Pollution

Hipcamp integrated light pollution data onto our campground discovery map so you can camp under the starriest skies. Find dark skies near you!


From Stonehenge to Vincent van Gogh, the heavenly constellations and starry night skies have fascinated humans since the dawn of time. Dating pre-history and passed down through generations of folklore as both mythological and spiritual lessons, the stars serve as a nightly reminder of our place in this universe.

These days, it’s increasingly difficult to escape the skyglow of cities and suburbs. Only one in five Americans able to see the Milky Way—the galaxy that contains our solar system—from their doorstep. But even with these limitations, nearly 90 percent of adult Americans witnessed the 2017 solar eclipse—that’s twice as many people who watched the Super Bowl. Clearly, we still have a soft spot for our pale blue dot’s place in this universe.

 

The Effects of Light Pollution
The Milky Way above Badlands National Park (Sarah Gustafson)

 

Our ecosystem works in a delicate balance, and beyond losing the ability to see stars and galaxies, the effects of light pollution on humans and the rest of nature are much further reaching than you may realize.

 

The Effects of Light Pollution

Disruption of Biological Functions and Loss of Habitat

Sitting around at night on our well-lit patios and decks, the conversation often arises about fireflies. How we all remember them around at night; these days, not so much.

Fireflies, like all species on this planet including humans, have evolved in accordance to regular day, night and seasonal cycles, genetically adapting an innate biological clock that controls our physiological activities. Fireflies in particular rely on darkness to perform the ritualistic dance that attracts partners to reproduce. For their survival, the lightning bugs we loved collecting so much as kids are forced to retreat to darker environments—but dark spaces are further and fewer between. Just like paving over forests or disrupting waterways, light pollution causes a loss of habitat for species that rely on darkness to perform their most basic biological functions.

Nocturnal species aren’t the only ones at risk. Diurnal species, like sea turtles, frogs and moths, are attracted to and disoriented by artificial light, leading them out of safe environments and often straight to their predators. A similar phenomena has been studied among migrating birds, who traditionally migrate during the night when the temperature is cooler, airways are calmer and there are fewer predators.

 

The Effects of Light Pollution
Fireflies Photo courtesy of LifeBuzz.
 

While we can simply shut down our computers, turn off the lights and close the blinds, it’s a lot harder for our cohabitants to escape the effects of artificial (human-made) light. Despite popular belief, we’re actually not on top of the food chain. And even if we were, we’d be remiss to believe that we are disconnected from the rest of nature, and that the loss of other species and ecosystems won’t affect us too.

The Spread of Diseases

If you’ve ever spent a few too many late nights staring at your screen, you may notice it’s actually harder to fall asleep. This is because the artificial blue-light emitted from our computer and phones can affect your melatonin levels, the hormone that is secreted at night and is known for helping regulate your body’s biological clock. Melatonin suppression, a bi-product of light pollution, has been linked to issues from sleep disorders to stress, anxiety and depression.

It has also been tied to the spread of diseases at large. Take the West Nile Virus: Meredith Kernbach, an eco immunologist at the University of South Florida, suspects that light pollution may have altered melatonin levels in birds, resulting in their weakened autoimmunity response and increased propensity to carry the virus.

New research has also found a significant link in melatonin suppression to increased cancer risk, particularly breast and prostate cancer that require hormones to grow. Shockingly, women who work night shifts have shown higher rates of breast cancer, whereas blind women have decreased risks, linking the suppression of melatonin and disruption of our biological clocks to these diseases.

Energy Waste

The Effects of Light Pollution
Unshielded vs. shielded lights. Photo courtesy of Saving the Dark.

Lots of outdoor lighting features are not properly shielded (meaning, having the light focused downward), making them both inefficient and harmful to night skies. This results in a lot of wasted energy—as well as billions of dollars wasted each year.

Surprisingly, even as low-energy lighting such as LED and CFL have become more cost efficient over time, communities tend to allocate the cost-savings towards even more sidewalk and parking lot street lamps, ultimately negating the purpose of having energy-saving options, and further polluting dark skies.

 

Through Darkness Comes Light

Like long-lost friends, the stars are always there for us. We just have to make a better effort to reach out to them. This effort can be as small as changing your home’s outdoor lighting fixtures, or becoming more involved in your community and pushing for town lighting ordinances. Here are a few ways you can help:

Install Dark-Sky Association Compliant Fixtures

One of the first ways we save on energy is to replace our bulbs with energy-efficient LED lighting. Unfortunately, while indoors is acceptable, LED’s blue-rich white light is harsh on our environment. For outdoor lighting—both residential and commercial—choose dark-sky compliant lighting fixtures. These dark-sky friendly fixtures should have one or several of the following:

  • Bulbs with warmer color temperatures of 3000 Kelvins or less
  • Cut-off shields to prevent light from traveling upwards
  • IDA’s Fixture Seal of Approval, which guarantees minimal glare, light trespass, and skyglow.

Keep Lighting Turned Off When Not in Use

Don’t keep outdoor lighting turned on all night. Keep lighting on dimmers or timers, and install motion sensors. Test and adjust it’s sensitivity to make sure it doesn’t trigger at each fluttering moth.

Become Involved With Your Local Community

Join one of IDA’s local chapters. Research and find out more about your town’s lighting ordinances. Like, do they even have one? If not—advocate to get one passed. Take initiative to make sure ordinances are correctly enforced.

Support Dark-Sky Parks

Camp in complete darkness to know what you’ve been missing. Along with Hipcamp’s Dark-Skies Map as a resource, camper’s can also support the International Dark Skies Places conservation program. For those searching, the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, located in the Sawtooth Mountains, is one of only twelve accredited worldwide and the first awarded in America.

 

The Effects of Light Pollution
Jug Handle Creek Farm, CA (Ezekiel Gonzalez)

 

As something we can see by a naked eye—maybe with a little stargazing app assistance—the vastness of space continues to inspire us. Today, we better understand our universe, the galaxies, and constellations. And while the full effects of light pollution are still being researched and data is still pouring in, we can strive to make things better and make sure that we don’t become part of the folklore. While we float on this mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam, let’s preserve our dark skies and take time to admire the stars.

 

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