Starting in the nearest valley, my eyes scanned the vast expanse of grassland, over one ridge, then another, and another until the world seemed to abruptly stop, halted by the forest bordering this enormous landscape. Above the sun illuminated the sky with pink clouds and gave the land its last ration of light for the day. Here, even the most limited imaginations can be easily transported to somewhere far away. This unbroken landscape inhabited by dozens of species of diverse, endangered, free-roaming animals is everything but familiar to an Ohio native. This place is called The Wilds.
Located on nearly 10,000 acres of reclaimed mineland in Muskingum County, Ohio, The Wilds has transformed from wasteland into one of the largest conservation centers in North America. Witnessing the conservation efforts that happen here – the endangered species and the ecological restoration – filled me with inspiration! But to my surprise, the most spectacular siting of all didn’t happen until the daylight disappeared and that orange sun finally sank below the endless horizon. It was not an endangered animal, but rather the rare siting of an endangered landscape that truly lit my heart on fire. In the pure, exceptional darkness, I saw the spectacular light of the night sky. More vast than the grasslands, this view of our galaxy was utterly magnificent and tugged at something deep and authentically wild inside me.
Nothing but Night
When my Grandma was a child, less than one hundred years ago, this kind of night sky could be seen by everyone. The Milky Way was a shared and common spectacle. Then slowly (and initially undetectably) we developed and lit up the land. Our populations, along with industrial civilization, grew and a new type of pollution was born. Artificial lights from inside and outside of homes and buildings, commercial properties, offices, arenas, billboards, streetlights, suburbs, cities, parking lots, and lampposts all switched on and shrouded out our night skies. Through the years, night by night, exponentially we added light. Until one day, today, less than one-third of us can see the Milky Way and approximately 83% of the world lives under light-polluted skies. Alarmingly, our worldwide rate of light pollution is growing 2% each year.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or inappropriate use of artificial light. According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the worldwide authority on light pollution, the four main components include: Glare – excessive brightness from unshielded lights, Skyglow – brightening of the night sky over populated areas, Light trespass – light falling where it is not needed or intended, and Clutter – excessive, bright and confusing groupings of light sources. The large majority of us have been in the dark about the measurable negative impacts of our brightening night sky. As with many conservation challenges, the harm is often unintentional and awareness of the problem is our first step toward enlightenment. As our communities grow, of course we need night light to see and stay safe! Visibility should always be the goal. But the real message that many of us have been missing is that brighter does not equal safer. To the contrary, it can actually create glare, excessive brightness, and decrease visibility in our yards and on roadways. Instead of more and brighter lights, we need smarter lighting. With more understanding and simple planning, we can create a safer environment while preserving the natural night.
Effects of Wasting the Watts
While electricity has forever transformed our lives, a growing body of evidence is shining more light on its toll to our resources, health, and wealth. The effects of light pollution pose serious threats to ecosystems, wildlife, and plant physiology. It changes predator-prey relationships, disrupts migration, and decreases reproduction. Light pollution can also disrupt our natural body cycles, called circadian rhythms, and production of the hormone melatonin. Energy use and its impact to our environment is a top concern of our time, yet studies show that about 35% of outdoor light is wasted by poorly designed, unnecessary, or unshielded lighting. In the United States this amounts to $3 billion dollars of wasted energy annually and about 15 million tons of CO2 emitted each year to power residential outdoor lighting. Now more than ever, as we battle the consequences of storm surges, fatal floods, historic droughts, and worsening wildfires in a changing climate, the impacts of our night sky illumination must come to light.
Right Light to Protect the Night
Though the need to restore the natural night environment is more urgent than ever, the good news is that like many forms of pollution, light pollution is reversible. An important distinction is that dark sky friendly lighting does not mean “no light.” It means using the amount of light you need where you need it, when you need it, and no more. The best place to start is by minimizing light from our own home. To assist us with this assessment, the IDA has created the following Five Principles for Responsible Outdoor Lighting:
1) Useful: Does the light serve a clear and necessary purpose? Light only what you need.
2) Targeted: Light should be directed only where needed. Use shielding and careful aiming to target the light beam.
3) Low Light Levels: Is the amount of light appropriate? Light should be no brighter than necessary. Use the lowest level required.
4) Controlled: Light should only be used when it is useful. Use timers or motion detectors to control lighting.
5) Color: Is the light source warm in color? Use warmer color lights where possible and limit amount of shorter wavelength (blue-violet) lights to the least amount needed.
Summer is a great time to renew our appreciation and commit to protect our endangered night sky. A good first step is to explore the IDA’s online resources and take inventory of our own home lighting. Participate in the “Globe at Night” citizen science campaign or visit Geauga County’s very own Observatory Park, Ohio’s only Dark Sky accredited park! Find your own favorite place to marvel at the Milky Way and do your part to preserve our nocturnal nature.