LIGHT POLLUTION: the over-abundance of artificial light in our culture

When I was a kid I could stand in the backyard of my home and watch the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, with no difficulty.  The lights danced in the sky in a variety of colors and it was more exciting than watching Robert Montgomery Presents on our one television station. The light show originated a thousand miles north of us at the North Pole and we didn’t need rabbit ears to pick it up.

On other nights I could lie in the grass of our yard and pick out the North Star and the various constellations available to us in the Northern Hemisphere.  I had a printed guide to help me distinguish the various components of each of the constellations.

Today both of these events would be impossible.   Even in small towns like my hometown the amount of exterior electric lighting, including street lights, is so extensive that the sky is literally aflame with light at night, masking the beauty of the stars and planets once visible to the naked eye.   Take that experience to the urban setting and you would have to magnify the numbers a hundred-fold or more to make the point.   Light has taken over our environment.

The result of this phenomenon is becoming known as light pollution.  A report I heard recently on NPR indicated that the best way to get a picture of light pollution is to find yourself thirty miles or so away from a city like Boston and look to the direction in which the city is located.  There will be a milky, peach-colored glow in the sky which identifies the area where the city and its immediate suburbs dwell.  This city and surrounding communities are bathed in artificial light which, when combined with the pollution from gases, creates a dome above the area, trapping the light and reflecting it back down on the people below.   It is almost impossible to find a truly dark area beneath that dome.  If so, it is relatively dark, not an area with pure darkness.  The NPR report included a review of the new documentary, The City Dark.

The NPR report indicated that we live in a culture which is nearly illuminated 24 hours a day, and that the lack of darkness in our lives is having a dramatic effect upon our very being.   One of the factors identified is the reduced ability of the body to produce melatonin, a hormone produced in our body that assists us in sleeping.  Melatonin is produced when the body experiences darkness.    When that darkness is eliminated, melatonin is not produced and the body’s needs are not met.   It has been suggested that the lack of melatonin is responsible for increased rates of aging, and may have an effect upon our immune system.

One of the factors identified in the studies of light pollution is our increasing dependence upon television, computer screens and even cell phone screens when the human body should be asleep in darkness.   Addiction to 24-hour social media and communications drives this factor.   So it’s not just about street lights and illuminated signs.   There is a personal issue involved as well.

It would be too bad to relegate the Northern Lights to a historic place without contemporary availability in our communities in this country.


Photo Credit:  Worldwide Energy

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