Not so lit: more lights may not help the environment

The sky in Edinburgh is incredible. During the day it is a continually changing myriad of colours. Early morning winds push the clouds along, transforming them into any shape your mind can imagine. Just before sunset, it takes on a deep orange or pink that always leaves me breathless. Even when it’s gloomy – and that it is often – the grey brings on a mystical feeling, as if we have all gone back in time.

The night sky in Edinburgh is no longer what it used to be. Light pollution has altered it. From the top of Arthur’s Seat, the night sparkles with stars, but the same skies that inspired Vincent Van Gogh to create masterpieces are slowly disappearing from our urban windows.

A study published in Science Advances found that light pollution is on the rise. With the UK high in the ranks, the researchers found an increase in light pollution of 2.2 per cent in the world’s most polluted countries.

The confusing bit is that wealthy areas – like the UK – began exchanging sodium lamps for more energy and cost-efficient LED bulbs. The Nasa radiometer mounted on a satellite and used by the researchers to measure nighttime light cannot pick up the smaller wavelength of the blue LEDs. The data should, therefore, show a decreased amount of light. Instead, the world’s brightest nations are remaining just as bright or growing brighter.

The authors blame the increase on the areas we are lighting now that we didn’t before. Chris Kyba, the lead author of the study, told The Verge “[we] light something that we didn’t light before, like a bicycle path through a park or a section of highway leading outside of town that in the past wasn’t lit.”

Why should you care?  Light pollution is disturbing the harmony between nocturnal and diurnal wildlife, disrupting migration patterns and predator-prey relations, and causing psychological harm to many animals.

Human circadian rhythms are primarily controlled by light, as it directs our bodies in the production of melatonin – the hormone which regulates sleep and wakefulness. Let’s not forget about the carbon footprint and energy wastage we are generating by increasing light pollution. Some sources claim that a quarter of electricity consumption worldwide can be accounted for by light usage.  

Light pollution doesn’t have any rapid effects, which is precisely what makes it so difficult to notice. Everyday, we turn on our lights most likely unaware of the kind of light we’re producing and the effects it will have. It’s a simple, mindless action with dire consequences.

Image: Timothy Tsui via Flickr

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