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Losing the Stars to Artificial Lights

Is It too Late to Save the ‘Night’?


Is It too Late to Save the ‘Night’?


Light pollution is increasingly blocking out the stars and causing other health concerns. Is it too late to solve it?



Is It too Late to Save the ‘Night’?

By Rob Smith
web only

Rapid growth in the use of artificial light means much of the world is experiencing a “loss of the night,” according to a study published in the journal Science Advances, which analysed images taken from a NASA Earth-observing satellite. The images reveal that between 2012 and 2016, artificially lit outdoor areas increased by 2.2% per year.

This increase was observed across most countries in Asia, South America and Africa, while half of Europe and a quarter of North America is now brighter than in 2012.

Only a small number of countries, including the United States, Spain and Italy, have the same amount of artificial light, the data shows. Meanwhile, light pollution has decreased in a handful of countries, such as Syria and Yemen, which are experiencing war.

Interestingly, the researchers had expected to see a decrease in brightness in affluent cities and across industrial areas following the introduction of energy-efficient LED bulbs, but the reverse has happened.

“What’s more, we actually see only part of the light increase,” lead researcher Christopher Kyba said.

This is because the NASA satellite can’t ‘see’ light at wavelengths below 500 nanometres, known as blue light, which is emitted by LEDs.

The Earth’s night-time surface brightness and especially the skyglow over cities is increasing, probably even in the cases where the satellite detects less radiation, according to the researchers.

Health Concerns

The use of artificial light has raised concerns about human health, including increasing the risk of obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes and even breast cancer, as this study shows.

It may also have an effect on the behaviour of animals, as well as negatively affect plant life and microorganisms.

Lights on the River Nile at night (Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Seeing the Light

However, Kyba’s team is hopeful that the situation can improve, particularly if we assume demand is nearing saturation in developed countries.

“[F]actors that reduce demand include efforts to transition to a sustainable society with decreased electricity demand, the desire of local governments to reduce the costs of lighting and the establishment of protected ‘dark sky’ areas,” the researchers write.

Noting the example of Tucson, Arizona, Kyba adds that well-designed LED lamps can be used to reduce light emission “without any noticeable effect for human perception.”

Tucson first adopted light ordinances in the 1970s in an effort to provide standards that ensured night lighting did not interfere with nearby astronomical observatories. Four decades later, it is still possible to view the Milky Way in Tucson with the naked eye, according to reports.

Additional Reading

Does ‘Clean’ Coal Power Exist?
More Than Saving Electricity
Striving for Energy Transition

Original content can be found at the website of World Economic Forum.

♦ We're losing the night due to artificial light. But it's not too late to get it back

This article is reproduced under the permission of World Economic Forum (WEF) and terms of Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 Unported License (“CCPL”). It presents the opinion or perspective of the original author / organization, which does not represent the standpoint of CommonWealth magazine.