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Making War On Light Pollution 437

Hugh Pickens writes "Almost thirty years ago I worked in the Middle East helping install a nationwide communications system and had the opportunity to be part of a team doing microwave link tests across Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter. Something I've never forgotten were the astonishing nights I spent in the desert hundreds of miles from the nearest city where the absence of light made looking at the sky on a moonless night feel like you were floating in the middle of the galaxy. In Galileo's time, nighttime skies all over the world would have merited the darkest Bortle ranking, Class 1. Today, the sky above New York City is Class 9 and American suburban skies are typically Class 5, 6, or 7. The very darkest places in the continental United States today are almost never darker than Class 2, and are increasingly threatened. Read a story from the New Yorker on what we have lost to light pollution and how some cities are adopting outdoor lighting standards to save the darkness."
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Making War On Light Pollution

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  • It's true (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wamerocity ( 1106155 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:26PM (#20523735) Journal
    I live in Salt Lake City, and the light pollution here is just like any other city. My favorite place is to visit Lake Powell, near the Arizona border where there are no city lights for at least 50-100 miles.

    I always thought it would be nice if we had one day a year where people made a conscious effort to turn off all their lights, like "Star's Day" or some other stupid name so people could have one night a year to keep lights off, but that would inevitably just lead to an increase in crime for that night, so... darn.

    We'll just have to enjoy it when I'm camping.
  • by oman_ ( 147713 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:30PM (#20523765) Homepage
    The most impressive sky I have ever seen was right after a typhoon on the island of Guam.
    I snuck out of my house when I was 16 and the island was still under a typhoon warning and nobody was outside.

    The entire island and the neighboring island of Truk were both without power entirely and there was not a single cloud in the sky.
    It truly was a spectacular sight and I do feel sad when I look up into the night here in the states.

    You can't imagine what it's like until you've seen it for yourself. Really

  • by also-rr ( 980579 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:36PM (#20523807) Homepage
    While lights at night may make the sky harder to see the effect will be very pretty [] for any visiting aliens.

    In fact this story has inspired me to go and set up xplanet [] again to provide an ever-changing desktop background.
  • Re:San Jose (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:47PM (#20523881)
    I can tell you that living in San Jose for the past 5 years, the yellow lights are annoying. I drive a lot at night, and its really hard to see sometimes, especially when your tired. The contrast from the yellow lights is so terrible sometimes, Its hard to see small cats/dogs/possums/skunks in the road. (I know, ive hit quite a few skunks myself, roakkill in San Jose, especially the North side is always high) Also, because we're not use to that particular yellow, it also makes your eyes tired, faster.

    Its a great idea, but a different type of yellow, or another color would work better.
  • Ascension Island (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dolphinzilla ( 199489 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:55PM (#20523931) Journal
    The darkest - best sky I have ever seen - in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean its pretty dark !
    I remember how easy it was to see all the space junk flying overhead - and some nebula's and galaxy's
    could be discerned with the un-aided eye.. Too cool. Light pollution sucks...
  • Re:Straw Man Alert (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:04PM (#20523989)

    Where's your evidence that lights reduce crime at all? If having some lights does reduce crime, where's your evidence that there aren't already more than the optimum number of lights? I know people think that lights reduce crime, but there seems to be little or no proof of it. In fact, what little research I've seen seems to indicate that lights, at least added on top of the lights we already have in cities, do not reduce crime.

    In any case, a lot could be done by just aiming the lights at the parking lot itself, rather than at the sky. There aren't that many flying muggers or rapists.

    I don't believe that nothing can be done about light pollution while maintaining ground-level lighting, and I honestly doubt that light reduces crime much anyway.

    However, even if I'm wrong about that, a better sky view for the majority of the world's population (that's BILLIONS of people) probably is worth a few muggings and even rapes... it takes a stunted soul, or somebody who's never seen a real night sky, not to realize the value. We're not talking about "hobbyists" or "enthusiasts". We're talking about any human being with a functioning spirit.

  • "Pollution"? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by intx13 ( 808988 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:10PM (#20524043) Homepage
    While I do understand the desire to see the night sky better, I'm not sure that this is "pollution" per se. Pollution (at least as defined by Merriam-Webster) implies contamination - light does not contaminate. Where we to just turn off all the lights and wait a few femtoseconds the night sky would be as dark as pitch. This isn't about pollution (which is something that does actually need fighting), but rather someone saying "Gee, I wish I could see the night sky better." Fair enough, and so do I, but I'm not willing to give up street lights to get it.

    Of course, when it comes to someone opening up their cell phone during a movie... roll out the tanks, let the war begin! :)
  • by v1 ( 525388 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:17PM (#20524075) Homepage Journal

    This was done of course to make cities difficult to spot from the air, aiding enemy bombers navigate to (or identify) their target. When you think about how hard it is to get 30,000 people to cooperate on anything, it's a wonder that was even worth the effort of trying.

  • Re:Straw Man Alert (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:34PM (#20524199)
    Besides turning off lights, just modifying them can make a tremendous difference. Calgary, Alberta used to be one of the brightest cities in the world (despite having a population under a million) and at night you could see about six stars. Most neighborhoods now have lower wattage street lights with flat faceplates. They're much more effective at directing light downwards instead of up into the sky so the overall illumination on the ground is the same. The city saves millions a year in power and you can see constellations again.
  • Re:Ah fuck that. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by silverkniveshotmail. ( 713965 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:37PM (#20524227) Journal

    How often do you look at the sky and how often do you look in front of you. Would you rather have a nice view of the stars or would you like to see where you're going?
    I used to live in Flagstaff, AZ. home of Lowell Observatory; in Flagstaff we had an ordinance against excessive light pollution, and at night the city was almost completely dark, it was really great to ride my bike through downtown with the minimal light. I don't know how practical this is in some situation as well lit areas are generally seen as safer, but i really miss it sometimes.
  • Re:Straw Man Alert (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ZombieWomble ( 893157 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:43PM (#20524259)
    There is some evidence that improved street lighting has the potential to improve safety - it's been studied a bit in the UK (often in the context of better lighting vs increased CCTV or the like), and there has been a general positive correlation. One meta-analysis of the studies published by the home office a few years ago can be found here [], and I'm sure google scholar can provide oodles of links to the underlying studies if you desire.

    What's notable though, is that there is a considerable variation in the result based on where the study was done (and, presumably, the exact difference between the test and control situations, as I haven't went through all the underlying studies myself), with many areas producing negligible changes, or even statistically significant increases in certain types of crime with the introduction of additional lighting. The most simple conclusion is that the lighting has to be sensibly managed: floodlights on every street corner are not necessary, and may even be detrimental. Which means that there is certainly the possibility that the goals of improving the visibility of the sky and the improvement of street lighting (improvement not strictly meaning increase, of course) are not necessarily incompatible.

  • by Snarfangel ( 203258 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:46PM (#20524285) Homepage
    Have you *seen* the lack of light pollution there?
  • Re:Women want light (Score:4, Interesting)

    by techno-vampire ( 666512 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:59PM (#20524363) Homepage
    It's called "security theater," and that's all most airports provide. All those metal detectors at government buildings, courts and so on only prevent two things: stupid criminals and honest people from going about their business without let or hindrance.

    There was an incident at the VA hospital on Wilshire Blvd in LA once, over twenty years ago. From then on, until about a year ago, you had to go through metal detectors to get into the waiting room for the main clinic, even though there was no evidence that there was any threat. However, you didn't have to go through them to get into any other part of the hospital; just the waiting room for the clinic. It took years of time, and numerous people complaining, but they were eventually deactivated. Not removed; just deactivated. They're still there, wasting space, doing nothing, having no more effect now than they did when they were in use. A perfect example of security theater in action.

  • by mwilliamson ( 672411 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @08:08PM (#20524423) Homepage Journal

    A few years back on TX State Highway 77 heading north I could see an odd skyglow that I noticed just a few miles north of Raymondville TX. I was interested quickly because there is nothing in the ranch land between Raymondville and Corpus Christi that could be making that much light. Is I continued north, I noted the slowness of the angular change of the light and realized it had to be Corpus. A couple of hours of driving confirmed that the skyglow in this city of absurd light was really visible 120 miles south of here.

    This city is totally filled with flood-lit carlots, an incredible amount of freeway lighting (way more per mile than any other Texas city that I've seen), billboard's littering the cityscape all lit from below, and a total disregard for our very unique coastal wildlife. Light pollution is just another example of our culture's unnatural incompatibility with our natural environment.

  • Re:Ah fuck that. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @08:24PM (#20524543)
    It's a bit more complicated than that. From a safety perspective, what you want is even lighting with fewer shadows. A brighter light can be counter productive in many areas to adding security.

    The lighting we have around her is horrible, it is bright where there is light, but many of the street lights are out so the dark shadows are almost impenetrable, as the horrid yellowish orange lights pretty much destroy any night vision. In many places there are huge bushes that impede the light.

    Fixing that could very well result in fewer lumens needed to light the area and still be significantly safer than what we have around here.

    The other thing that they could do is use red lights rather than the more typical yellowish orange ones. While it probably doesn't make a difference directly, red lights are going to require less lumens to light an area.
  • night sky (Score:3, Interesting)

    by falconwolf ( 725481 ) <> on Saturday September 08, 2007 @09:53PM (#20525101)

    I have some fond memories from the week I spent houseboating with my cousins on Lake Powell. I slept on the top of the boat, and it was absolutely the clearest sky I've ever seen. Definitely much better than anything I've seen in the midwest, where I live. The only problem was the high walls blocked the sides of the sky.

    I remember going out at night growing up in Florida and just lying on the ground gazing at the stars. It would be so clear and the stars would be bright. Then the county put in street lights and they ruined stargazing. About the only thing that spoiled it before the streetlights was the jets flying overhead, we lived a few miles from airport runways and one of the flight paths was over us. I especially loved watching rocket launches, we lived outside of Orlando and was about 50 miles from the cape.

  • by keeboo ( 724305 ) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @11:07PM (#20525513)
    I do live in Curitiba [] and I do remember that ~15 years ago you could quite a lot of stars during the night, enough to try to identify the constelations and stuff. Nowadays all you can see during the night is a reddish haze in the sky (due to the city's mercury lamps), the Moon, Venus and perhaps one and another star. When the weather is _very_ dry you may see perhaps more 5-6 stars.

    Once, 10+ years ago, I was returning from Paraguay by bus and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in a freak-long line (customs control). The line was completely stuck, I was feeling bored and went from the bus to take some fresh air. I remember that when I looked at the night sky I could see clearly the Via-Lactea, the sky was filled with stars and the whole thing seemed sort of colorful.. You could even see some meteorites/satellites/whatever passing by.
    Man, that was an unique experience for a city guy. I guess it was only then I realised the point of appreciating the night sky people so often wrote about.
  • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @12:08AM (#20525829) Homepage Journal

    One answer is to only run 1/3 of the lights at any given time and randomly change which 1/3 is on. Tests have shown that this tends to REDUCE crime. When the lights are always on, criminals can see where the dark places are and hide there. With random lights, their nice dark hiding place can light up like a parking lot without warning. To a criminal, a light that could come on at any moment is as bad or worse than an always on light.

    It's a fairly easy way to save a lot of electricity and help with light pollution. Bonus points if a "scream sensor" immediatly lights the area fully. Double bonus if the surrounding lights light up in an arrow pattern so a police helicopter can spot a problem area visually.

  • by falconwolf ( 725481 ) <> on Sunday September 09, 2007 @01:07AM (#20526145)

    It's an illusion. There [] are no good scientific studies that convincingly show the relationship between lighting and crime. In some cases, lighting seems to deter crime and it makes people feel more secure, but in reality they may be just as secure without the lighting.

  • by yeremein ( 678037 ) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @01:12AM (#20526157)
    On an all-night *yawn* trip from Salt Lake City to San Diego, I took this photo [] at the rest area in the desert between Baker and Barstow, California, looking in the direction of Las Vegas. Once I found refuge from the glare bombs surrounding the parking lot, I looked up and saw more stars than I've ever seen before... but Vegas and L.A. were huge glowing domes on the horizon. I don't think there's anywhere in the continental U.S. that is totally free from light pollution.

  • by Gary W. Longsine ( 124661 ) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @01:36AM (#20526277) Homepage Journal
    You don't need a scientific study to figure some of this stuff out. My bullshit detector lights up whenever some random dothead posts a quote from a random website to Slashdot that "no such studies have been done". People who claim no such studies have been done usually have no clue exactly how many graduate students there are in the world (a lot... I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that more than one had independently studied the relative incidence of cold and flu among two groups of people, one of which pluck their nose hairs when they get too long, the other which trim). Someday Google will make it easier to find and evaluate studies on all manner of things. For now, it's a bit harder than it should be.

    And sure, sometimes no good studies have been done on a random topic or another, even important topics that might surprise you. Freakonomics [] (chapter 4) had an interesting discussion of the measurable affect of various public policy on crime rates, and it appears that the topic was not well studied and certainly the results of the studies which had been done were not well synthesized. As much energy and money as it receives, you would think that would be studied more rigorously and more often. Alas, it is not.

    One moment please while I google for you... Here's a nice (rigorously referenced) summary which draws upon several studies, and which includes a section on lighting, which has been studied and shown to be effective as a measure in reducing crime. Presuming Canadian criminals do not have some unique national aversion to well-lit areas at night, then these results might be of interest to others, eh?


    On the other hand, sure, maybe most of these studies are too localized, and what's happening on the larger scale is a shell game: a fixed amount of crime in a city is moving from well-lit areas to less-well-lit areas.

    In any case, I'm definitely in favor of shielding and motion sensors and reduction of night lighting that's not useful. However, security lighting is a real concern, and it entails more than simply crime, it's really about insurance liability and inventory loss. Business owners will tell you that gangs of kids don't hang out in their parking lots at night as often (or at all) when they are well lit. They will also tell you that incidents of break-ins went down after they started lighting up the place at night. In some situations, their insurance companies may require certain lighting improvements, and you can bet the actuaries have some idea of the cost/benefit of lighting in certain situations. Installing and running lights isn't free, after all, and it's quite likely that businesses wouldn't do it if they were not pretty well convinced that it's effective at saving them money in some way which exceeds the cost. They might be wrong, but that wouldn't be for a complete lack of evidence supporting their current belief.
  • Re:Driving Lights... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:02AM (#20526601) Homepage
    Headlights aren't that big of a deal as far as light pollution goes, in most places at least. Ever been on a road where you're the only car going down it, but there are lights all over the place? Those lights are the problem.

    What interesting timing for this article, though. This evening, my partner and I drove 35 minutes away to get to somewhere with a Bortle limit of 4, perhaps a bit closer to 3 than to 5, so we could stargaze and use our telescope. We'd have to drive an hour and a half, maybe more to get to a Bortle limit of 2.

    And we live in freakin Iowa. Not Des Moines or anything, either -- Iowa City. It seems crazy that living in a city of 60k people, with a city of 100k people half an hour to the north and 200k people over an hour to the east, and that's pretty much it except for farmland and scattered towns, would have this much light pollution. And yet, we do. We have to go to northeastern Missouri to get to a 2.

    A month ago, I was in Yellowstone. Bortle limit 1-2. I've never seen the sky that beautiful. It was like a painting. Kudos to the planners for the park for keeping light pollution out that well with that many travelers. Sadly, when I went to Rocky Mountain National Park right afterwards, they were a 3 or 4. Too close to Denver, I suppose. Such a pity.

    You know, in theory, light pollution can be made to go away with the flick of a switch. In practicality, that's impossible. Nobody is just going to turn off all of the lights in their cities. Realistically, light pollution can only be eliminated by changing our infrastructure, and in a way, that's very similar to the problems with many other kinds of pollution.
  • A quick Google search shows that there seem to be studies about lighting and crime. Sure the topic probably merits additional study, but discounting the work that has been done based on an unsourced sentence leading a wikipedia article probably isn't helping further the discussion.

    Before replying I did use Google. I found the Wiki article by Googling lights night security studies [], it's number 4 in the results. The first result is a blog entry about how the streetlight outside the window disturbs sleep. The next two are sellers of lights. The fifth, "The Issues surrounding lighting" [] has a section, "How lighting can aid crime", explaining exactly how lights help crime. It's interesting the first one says most crimes happen in daylight. Streetlights definitely don't help there.

  • by kramulous ( 977841 ) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:46AM (#20526775)
    I grew up about a thousand kilometres west of the eastern coast of Australia. Not a lot there. I grew up with the stars and loved them.
    Many years later, I had a couple of friends come home with me for a couple of weeks for a break, one of them from London. I remember him being absolutely flabbergasted by the shear number of stars ... and colours. He said that he always knew they were there and had seen a couple, but had no idea just how many were visible. He stood there gazing for over an hour.
    I think the difficulty here is that a *lot* of people just do not, nor ever will, realise just how amazing it is. Many people have only lived, or ever will live, in the cities. Break out the violin, because nothing will happen here. I plan to work for another five years in the cities and then I'm going up north where the largest city for 1500 kilometres is 45 000.
  • by kimvette ( 919543 ) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @02:52PM (#20530317) Homepage Journal
    re: What does coastal wildlife have to do with light pollution? WTF!

    Someone didn't read the article.

    Here are some reading comprehension questions. Please answer using complete sentences. ;)

    1. What do newly hatched sea turtles instinctively do immediately following hatching?

    2. How does artificial lighting affect migrating birds?

    3. How does artificial lighting affect insect populations, and eventually, population of other wildlife?

Where it is a duty to worship the sun it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat. -- Christopher Morley