Scared of the dark? You probably aren't alone. But we might have more to fear from bright lights obscuring the night sky than from the dark.
As humans turn on more and more lights to, ostensibly, keep us safer, we might just be: endangering our health; giving bad guys more shadows to hide in; disrupting the natural rhythms of our lives as well as the lives of nocturnal animals, birds and insects; and erasing more and more of the wonder of the night sky.
This has become more apparent in Goldendale, one of 15 Dark Sky Parks in the United States designated by the International Dark Sky Association. Goldendale is also home to the state's only public observatory, where amateur astronomers and park officials have raised concerns about increasing light pollution despite city and Klickitat County ordinances enacted 30 years ago aimed at protecting the darkness of the night sky. A case in point: Recently installed lights intended to improve safety around the historic Klickitat County Courthouse direct too much light upward. Officials recently agreed to turn off new street lamps until necessary shields can be installed to direct the light downward.
Meanwhile, dark sky advocates want to use the situation as a conversation starter about light pollution and what can be done. As stated on the observatory's website (goldendaleobservatory.com), "Dark-sky friendly lighting does not require you to live in darkness or turn off all the lights at night -- only the unnecessary ones. Light pollution is that rare issue that costs less to solve than to let it continue."
Light pollution is being studied on various fronts. Some medical studies have linked exposure to excessive artificial light to increases in breast and prostate cancers. Ecologists have been tracking how artificial light confuses migrating birds, as well as reptiles and mammals. Even trees exposed to prolonged artificial light may not be able to adjust to seasonal variations, according to a 2006 study. NASA recently released a report on the seasonal effect of holiday lighting that shows urban light intensity increases from Black Friday to New Year's.
The problems come, as most problems do, from us not thinking about the consequences of our actions. We want a security light outside, but don't bother to check to make sure that it doesn't shine all night into our neighbor's window. Faced with an overwhelming multitude of options when we are buying light bulbs, we choose a cool, white-blue tone not understanding that an amber light's warmer tones scatter less than blue-white light. So an educational effort by dark sky enthusiasts, hardware stores and others might just help us all. We're grown accustomed to thinking about energy saving devices, so we can probably learn to think about not wasting light by sending it needlessly into the night sky.
Kudos to the folks in Klickitat County for taking action to protect the night sky for the observatory, which draws 20,000 visitors a year, including many children from more urban areas who have never had a chance to see a star-filled sky. And that may be the most important reason to take steps to protect the dark sky. The infinite heavens above us have inspired scientists, guided explorers and captivated poets. Where will we be if the next generations aren't able to see the stars?
Editorial by the Yakima, Wash., Herald-Republic.