Nowadays, the humanity has become extremely concerned with a wide range of environmental problems that threat the existence of future generations. International organizations, governments of different countries, ecologists, scientists representing all kinds of disciplines, and ordinary people have realized that rapid industrialization, urbanization, and essential alteration of eco-systems with a view to satisfying capitalist needs and aspirations have had a detrimental impact on the environment.
Air pollution is a serious concern and in some parts of the world, for instance, in China clean air has become a limited and precious commodity that people have to pay for to enjoy for a brief period of time. Water pollution threats existence of the maritime life in oceans, sees, rivers, and lakes, while access to drinking water in the overwhelming majority of developing and underdeveloped countries is extremely limited. Global warming has been a widely discussed and controversial issue for the past decades. Environmentalists and politicians have been publicly debating over the question whether it is really occurring and the planet temperature experiences unprecedented temperature increase, which can melt glaciers and cause flooding of coast regions across the world. Another view expressed on the issue has been that global warming is a popular myth with no solid evidence that is exploited by certain groups and individuals for various reasons.
The other discussions concerned the other kinds of pollution that are actively researched and drawn attention to with a view to preventing further environmental degradation. They are also called to preserve the only known habitable planet in the universe in its current state, which is still not optimal for sustenance of the growing world population. However, little has been heard about light pollution that is mostly ignored by the overwhelming majority of ecologists. Generally, the scientists deal with more observable and tangible environmental problems that undeniably worsen the quality of living and threat the humanity and its future.
For many years, light pollution has been an issue raised solely by astronomers, including both professionals and amateurs, who have been worried about the current state of the skies. Since the middle of the last century, dark skies have been an extreme rarity, especially in highly developed and rapidly developing countries. Urban dwellers have had a little chance of seeing stars at night due to the light pollution. Astronomers have had serious difficulties with observing and studying the skies at night, unless their observatories are located in rural areas with little illumination or in remote areas that can be deemed relatively untouched by human activities. Nonetheless, recent researches prove that light pollution is a serious environmental problem that has adverse consequences for the health of human beings, as well as threatens existence of animal and plant species.
Moreover, the problem is tightly interrelated with other environmental problems that should be solved in a complex with a view to ensuring sustainable development of the world. Thus, it seems essential to provide a brief overview of the given vital issue, as well as defining the term under consideration. The state of current situation will be discussed in Seattle as the primary location of the research representing the overall state of the US urban areas, and emphasizing key aspects of how light pollution impacts people, flora, and fauna. Finally, the paper will provide some possible solutions to the problem even though they cannot be considered exhaustive. It is caused by the fact that the issue still remains largely under-researched and requires further studying so that its impacts could be well-understood and effective solutions could be developed. Overall, the issue of light pollution is extremely topical and should be paid more attention to by experts, governments, international organizations, the media, and common people. All stakeholders have to realize significance of the issue under consideration and cooperate to stop escalation of the problem.
It is difficult to deny a simple fact that people need light, especially at night. Electricity and its ability to give light may be regarded as the most groundbreaking invention with multiple far-reaching consequences, which has also enabled technological progress and industrialization. However, it has recently become evident that not all light is beneficial and that it can be dangerous in the short and long perspectives. Hence, people have been steadily increasing the amount of lights and illumination sources at night for various reasons. They include presumed safety from criminals, illumination of dwellings, creation of working conditions at enterprises with night shifts, entertainment, and many others. Such extensive use of lights at night is a primary cause of the escalating problem of light pollution that can be defined as “the experience of light in the wrong place or at the wrong time” (The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 2009). Current problem is a result of intensive illumination of urban and suburban areas, as well as traffic lights, entertainment centers, billboards, street lamps, road lights, and other various sources of light at night that people view as an integral part of convenient modern life. The Internet contains a great amount of pictures of the planet at night taken from the space, which show brightly lit clusters that create an impression that people have managed to continue the day into the night with the help of artificial light. Such images may look impressive and beautiful at the first glance as they testify the humanity’s technological progress, yet they also overshadow the natural beauty of the dark night sky. Many people living today have never seen a starry night sky, which cannot be done without specialized equipment, and will never see the vast dark blue expense of the skies that provide an insight into the universe outside the boundaries of the planet (Walker, 2008).
The above is a logical consequence of light pollution that only recently has acquired a status of a hazardous environmental problem that needs to be solved for the sake of the entire world’s well-being. There are distinguished different forms of light pollution, including glare, light clutter, light trespass, sky glow, light profligacy, and absence of darkness (The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 2009). Glare is defined as “the excessive contrast between bright and dark areas in the field of view” (The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 2009). Light clutter is a form of light pollution that envisions presence of the lights grouping that can be deemed excessive (The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 2009). In turn, light trespass occurs when unwanted light enters some place, originating, for instance, from neighboring property or street lamps. Light profligacy means “over-illumination which wastes energy and money”, while sky glow is “a combination of reflected and refracted light from the atmosphere” (The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 2009). As a consequence of the latter, contrast in the skies is significantly reduced and completely dark skies can be rarely seen. Such form of light pollution is the most pervasive one and it can influence areas located from the source of light causing sky glow. Finally, name of the last identified form, i.e. absence of darkness means that artificial lights used by people that have made it impossible to experience “natural night-time lighting conditions” in most parts of the world, but especially in large urban areas and their adjacent territories (The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 2009). Sometimes, it may be difficult to differentiate between different forms of light pollution as they occur simultaneously and overlap.
Nowadays, almost no place in the USA, east of the Mississippi River, as well as the entire Europe falls into complete darkness under the sky darkness scape developed by John Bortle in 2001 and used to measure light pollution (Judd, 2013). According to recent analyses conducted by astronomers and environmentalists, the Northwest is significantly affected by light pollution and “there is no place in the entire state of Washington that does not suffer from at least some light pollution” (Donohue, 2001). The aforementioned statement was published in 2001 and the situation has only worsened since then in the state of Washington in general and in Seattle in particular. Below, Figure 1 is a part of the Light Pollution Atlas created by David Lorenz in 2006 that represents the light pollution map of the area near to Seattle. The cross in the picture in the large red area is the center of Seattle and the map has been created to illustrate the state of the sky on a clear night. Red and orange colors stand for light pollution at the level of 7 to 5 respectively under the Bortle’s scale (Danko, 2015). In areas with such levels of light pollution, including Seattle, ordinary observers can hardly see the Milky Way on a clear night, while the sky remains bright and loses color near the horizon (Danko, 2015). The color of the sky is dull grey instead of dark, and it prevents people from seeing stars (Danko, 2015).
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The black color stands for the dark sky with limited glow and clear visibility of stars. In turn, white, a small amount of which is seen to the north of Seattle, is the sky that is the most affected by light pollution as it is bright, starless, and discolored everywhere irrespective of the angle of observation. Blue colors stand for the skies that have been affected by light pollution but not extremely severely, since stars can be observed and the light can be seen on the horizon (Danko, 2015). Green colors of different shades represent intermediary levels of light pollution that have not fully incapacitated visibility of stars yet, but already have a detrimental impact on the eco-system due to the reasons explained in more detail in the following sections of the paper. Hence, as seen from Figure 1, Seattle is already drastically affected by light pollution as its citizens cannot experience true darkness of the skies on a clear night. Such state of affairs is similar for all urban centers throughout the world. In any case, the situation in Seattle is not the worse in the state, since the white-colored area is located to the north of the city, though not too far away. Unless, the local authorities and citizens realize the threat posed by light pollution and significance of addressing the problem, Seattle faces a real thread of becoming another white zone on the light pollution map within the following decade.
With the construction of new buildings and skyscrapers, as well as a vast number of entertainment options available at night, the dark sky is gradually becoming an obsolete phenomenon in the given urban center despite its relatively modest size as compared to the world megapolises that indicate similar levels of light pollution. Figure 3 was taken after midnight, but the sky looks like the dawn is coming, which is another proof that the environmental problem under consideration exists in the city. Figure 4 is an image created by Benjamin Benschneider by combining a real photo of Seattle at night and a photo of the Milky Way provided by the Seattle Astronomical Society (Judd, 2013). The main purpose of the image is to show people how the city would look like without light pollution. The image may become a true inspiration and a call for action aimed at solving the problem of light pollution in the city and reducing the amount of lights used in the city polluting the sky. For comparison, Figure 5 below shows a real sky over Seattle on a clear night, whereby almost no stars can be seen, the color of the sky is dull grey, and it is luminescent to some extent, which renders the experience of the truly dark sky impossible.
The situation in Seattle is not the worst in the world and in the USA with respect to light pollution, but it has already reached an alarming level. The overwhelming majority of people do not consider light pollution to be a serious problem and an environmental issue. On contrary, they consider it to be merely a problem for astronomers and an inconvenient by-product of urbanization (Bashiri & Che Hassan, 2014). However, in Seattle, just like in many other cities of the world, there is a local group of dark-sky advocates who try to persuade common people about the necessity of fighting light pollution. The Seattle group is headed by Dave Ingram who conducts “guerilla astronomy” and comes to people in the streets offering them to look at the stars through his telescope and see the beauty right above their heads (Judd, 2013). He believes that current dwellers of the city and the world in general “will be the first in history of the planet to go most or all the way through life failing to grasp our place in the universe” (Judd, 2013). Like many other dark-sky advocates, he believes that “You can put anybody – I don’t care who they are – out under the stars for 30 minutes, and they start asking the bug questions” and it can only occur in the process of observing the dark skies (Judd, 2013). The group and other dark-sky activists suggest implementing some solutions aimed at decreasing the level of light pollution in the city. One of such solutions could be the use of “only cut-off, semi, or full cutoff exterior light fixtures” (Urban Environmental Institute, 2002). It would direct light from street lamps to the ground and limit ambient light and glare in the sky, as well as reduce consumption of energy and protect “the nocturnal habitat of animals, plants and ecological processes” (Urban Environmental Institute, 2002). Such solution has been successfully implemented in some French and German cities, which makes it a feasible option for Seattle (Bogard, 2013). The Holland Company NXP Semiconductors also offers smart lighting systems that can be controlled with the help of smartphones and laptops. But their system has not been tested on a large scale yet and can be costly for implementation in a big city (Wintermann, 2012). However, finding effective and efficient solutions to the problem is of immense significance and may be even regarded as a life-and-death matter. The reason for such urgency is the fact that light pollution has detrimental impacts on the humanity not only with respect to existentialist thoughts and search for the individual’s place in the universe, but also with respect to health and the environment in general.
Astronomers were the first to notice the problem of light pollution and raised the question regarding the issue at the end of 20th century. Despite being “the only minority concerned by this problem”, they were determined to “lead the fight without expecting any help, apart from the lighting interest” (Crawford & Gergely, 1988). Although their interest in the fight against light pollution may be deemed initially purely professional, their publications and calls for action have drawn attention of experts from other fields, including health practitioners, zoologists, and biologists. The latter have conducted several researches, proving that light pollution is hazardous for all living organisms.
The matter is that all organisms have endogenous biological clocks and their internal biorhythms depend on light-dark cycles (Navara & Nelson, 2007). Besides, there is a “marked circadian variation in physiological functions” and responses to light cycles lead to temporal organization in animals and humans (Navara & Nelson, 2007). For instance, humans need darkness to have sound sleep at night and numerous studies have proved that the lack of natural darkness at night results in insomnia, chronic fatigue, depression, mood swings, and other physiological problems (Navara & Nelson, 2007). Moreover, disruption of the normal circadian cycle results in changes relating to rhythmicity and production of hormones by a human body, including glucocorticoids, serotonin, corticotrophin, prolactin, and some other (Fischman et al., 1988). One of the hormones affected by light pollution is melatonin, which is also considered to be a factor contributing to higher rates of colorectal and breast cancers, especially among people who work on a night shift (Pauley, 2004). The entire range of impacts of light pollution on human organism is unknown due to the lack of respective researches, since most of them are conducted on animals. However, some indirect impacts of light pollution have been proved, for instance, with relation to metabolism disruptions. Hence, obesity, diabetes, and some other disorders may result or be intensified by the lack of proper sleep, which is, in turn, a consequence of light pollution (Bass & Turek, 2005). Finally, many famous personalities, including artists like Van Gogh, poets like Shakespeare, and writers, have sought inspiration in the starry night, which is nowadays impossible, unless people go to some remote areas in an undeveloped country for that purpose.
With respect to flora and fauna, light pollution disrupts their normal functioning as well and causes abnormal behavior and metabolism functions, which may result in their death. For instance, most birds go to sleep only in conditions of natural darkness. Consequently, absence of such condition results in sleep problems, which may exhaust them to death. Other impacts on animals include disorientation, mortality, essential alterations in nesting behavior, attraction to light, and lack of sleep (Bashiri & Che Hassan, 2014). Sea turtles are among the most vivid examples of such impacts, since artificial lights on beaches disrupt their behavior and newborn turtles cannot find a right way to the water and, as a result, die. Life cycle of plants is also affected by light pollution, since many plants exploit the night as the time for speedy growth, while pollution alters their metabolism and leads to their death. Although some impacts of light pollution on living organisms have been determined and partially studied, current aspect remains largely under-researched and requires further studies in order to learn the entire extent of the problem.
In general, the above discussion of light pollution proves that current issue is extremely topical and dangerous both in Seattle and in the world on the whole. At the same time, such type of environmental pollution remains significantly under-researched and is not recognized as pollution in some countries. Moreover, the general public is mostly ignorant about the existence of the problem and its potential adverse impacts on the humans and all other living organisms. It is necessary for the humanity to realize that light pollution poses a real threat that has reached the level of almost global spread and continues spreading as more areas of the world are settled and industrialized by people. Unless people acknowledge that the problem exists and conduct additional studies aimed at researching the exact scope of the issue and all its impacts on living organisms and the environment, no effective and efficient solutions can be developed and implemented. Currently, mainly astronomers and dark-sky advocates take measures against light pollution and call for implementation of actions aimed at limiting lights at night at local levels. For instance, installment of cutoff external light fixtures is not a costly solution, which can significantly improve the situation in any city, including Seattle. Besides, people should be made aware of the problem and be encouraged to consume less illumination at night with a view to preventing further escalation of the problem. Nonetheless, the most effective solution with real-life implications consists in the government developing and adopting some legislation relating to light pollution and fight against it. Otherwise, voluntary organizations and activists are likely to have a relatively small influence on the spread of light pollution due to the limited extent of their outreach. In any case, light pollution has become an international problem of the contemporary society that should be granted equal status and priority with other kinds of pollution, which receive much attention today and are deemed urgent in terms of their solution.