Darkness in distress

Thanks to light pollution, most of us have never seen the night sky in all its wonder. But a new mindset and new technology are poised to slow — and perhaps reverse — this bane of modern life.

J. Kelly Beatty, chairman of the New England Light Pollution Advisory Group and a senior contributing editor to Sky & Telescope magazine, will present "Light Pollution: How to Mitigate," at 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 7, at Olin Arts Center. The presentation is part of the Bates College Museum of Art "Starstruck: The Fine Art of Astrophotography" show.

A reception in the museum and a star-watching party (weather permitting) follow.

The museum is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Wednesdays until 7 p.m. during the academic year.


Imagine driving through town as every fire hydrant gushes water into the street. Or stepping outside to find that the sprinkler system next door has gone berserk and is drenching the side of your house with a steady stream of water.

That situation wouldn't last long — you'd quickly be giving city hall and your neighbor an earful about it.

So why do we put up with the waste of so much light at night? Light pollution, simply put, is any unnecessary or excessive outdoor illumination. Sadly, it's become a pervasive and ugly consequence of modern 24/7 society.

Look around you the next time you're out at night. Much of the intense light generated by roadway and security fixtures never touches the ground. It never lights anyone's way, never provides any security, visibility, or guidance.

Instead, it shines straight up into the sky. That ugly orange pall that envelops every city skyline is a collective consequence of all the streetlights that line our roadways, the over-the-top lighting at fast-food restaurants and gas stations, and even the intrusive glare from a neighbor's security light.

It didn't used to be this way.

Electric streetlights have been around for more than a century, but it wasn't until the 1950s that General Electric and Westinghouse lined America's roadways with millions of "cobra-head" streetlights that remain today.

Then, around 1970, light bulbs filled with high-pressure sodium gas began to blanket the landscape with their dazzling, ubiquitous, peach-colored glare.

Without question, certain nighttime situations do require illumination. You wouldn't use an unlit ATM, or fumble in the dark with a gas pump. But when it comes to outdoor lighting, more is seldom better.

Today, lighting scientists report, 99 percent of Americans live with light pollution to varying degrees, and more than two-thirds of us can't see the star-spangled Milky Way from our backyards.

Light pollution robs us of more than the night sky's beauty. It's an in-your-face waste of energy.

According to an estimate by the international Dark-Sky Association, skyward-directed light squanders more than $2 billion in electricity in the U.S. every year. Poorly designed lighting causes harsh glare that can blind and distract drivers, especially in bad weather and for elderly drivers with poor vision. Over-lit buildings disorient many birds, especially during their seasonal migrations, causing death due to impact or predation.

More ominous is a growing body of research suggesting that excessive light at night can disrupt the production of melatonin, a compound produced as we sleep — and only in darkness — that seems to play multiple roles in maintaining general human health.

Clinicians around the world are racing to find out how disrupted darkness might impair the circadian (day-night) cycles, and two months ago the American Medical Association released a report titled "Light Pollution: Adverse Health Effects of Nighttime Lighting."

Fortunately, the spread of nighttime sky-glow can be easily halted and even reversed. The most effective remedy is both simple and cost-effective: just make sure that all the light is directed downward, by using fixtures that send all their light below horizontal.

Look around, and you'll see that most modern businesses use these "fully shielded" lights extensively — not because they're dark-sky devotees, but because doing so saves energy and money.

To its credit, the Maine Legislature has been better than most in addressing outdoor-lighting issues. Since 1991, outdoor-lighting fixtures must be fully shielded if state funds are used for the project that installed them. This requirement also applies to state-owned streetlights, as well as on state university campuses and at other state-owned facilities, including parking lots.

More broadly, lighting engineers are abuzz about the potential for light-emitting diodes to take energy efficiency to a new level. Although they're only now becoming as efficient as existing streetlights, the trend is clear: soon they'll illuminate practically everything, including our roadways.

Best of all, LEDs are inherently directional — they must be pointed toward their target, so they have the potential to revolutionize outdoor lighting in a profoundly positive way.

But we don't have to wait for LED technology to mature in order to start reducing light pollution. Just tilting a spotlight downward or equipping it with a motion detector would be a start.

Make sure new construction, whether municipal or commercial, utilizes fully shielded outdoor lighting. Even these small efforts will help ensure that the pristine night skies for which Maine is so well known will stay that way —  now, and for generations to come.

J. Kelly Beatty chairs the New England Light Pollution Advisory Group.

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 's picture

red flashing lights

Not a single application of Industrial Wind Turbines addressed the issue of "red" flashing lights seemingly floating along ridges and reflecting in lakes.

Jim Lutz's picture

Night Lights

Who would have ever thought of putting an industrial complex on top of a mountain in one of the darkest spots in our beautiful state? With a Bortle Dark-Sky rating of 1, we have had a camp in the Lincoln area where the incredible universe was visible to us from the time we were children. For more than 60 years we were able to see more stars, planets, satellites, galaxies, meteors, and Northern Lights than any other place I have ever been. We looked through a telescope at any place it would point at the wonders of the skies.

Now, thanks to First Wind, we have to put up with bright flashing lights on 27 wind towers. Some of them are red and flash every 2 seconds and some are bright white and are almost like strobes. They flash from dusk to dawn and make looking through a telescope impossible. The sad part is, they are unnecessary, the turbines should not even be there. They are useless, do not cut CO2, are unreliable, intermittant, and produce electricity that is four times more expensive than gas or hydro powered electricity. The rate increases on our bills from CMP and Bangor Hydro are to upgrade our grid solely to handle the flux and skitter from these turbines. And the minimal power being produced is not going to Maine, but to Massachusetts. Our grid in Maine is perfectly good enough to handle our own existing power needs for the next 30 years based on population growth projections.

Maine produces almost twice the energy needed on the highest draw day using the cleanest sources in the nation. We actually have the cleanest state in the union based on our heavy forestation and low population. Our forests clean more CO2 out of the atmosphere per capita than any other state. We also produce 50% of our energy from renewable sources. These are all FACTS. And the wind industry keeps lying to us about how wonderful it is to ruin our pristine wilderness with quotes like "Maine is the Saudi Arabia of Wind." Actually we are in the LOWEST 89th percentile of wind just here in America.

I would like to see the Turbine's lights put on a radar system as long as they are up there so they would be off at night unless a plane comes into their space, and then goes out when it flies past. At least that would make them mostly invisible at night.
But unless we make some real changes in our government this November, both in our Senator, and the national leadership, we will have more of these monstrosities shoved down our throats. Remember to vote in November and make sure you know the candidate's position on Wind.

 's picture

Thank you, J. Kelly Beatty,

Thank you, J. Kelly Beatty, for an 'enlightening' article! We who live "out in the boonies" are blessed with starry starry nights, full moons and meteor showers, the northern lights and the humbling pleasure of looking upward and being dwarfed by the immensity of our universe. One night I watched the space shuttle and the space station soar silently past overhead, an event that would never have been noticed in town. Much of the lighting in towns and cities is wasted and misdirected. Bring on the LED's! The biggest sources of light pollution now in rural areas are radio and communication towers, and much worse than that is the overwhelming impact of industrial wind turbines being built on our ridgelines and mountain tops. Drive through the town of Lincoln at night to get the full effect. It's unreal, like being in a gigantic airport. Quite out of place in such an extraordinarily beautiful area of lakes and hills...and previously dark and starry skies.


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