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Benefits of Environmentally-Aware Lighting Techniques

Find yourself a place where you can watch the sunset. Somewhere away from artificial light, somewhere away from the noise of a city. As the sun goes down, be in the moment and take notice of what is happening around you. The insect and frog calls start and stop – intermittent, in chorus, syncopated – there are so many sounds. 

Gaze at the blue hue of the arc of twilight as it rises in the east, and finally, one by one, the night stars start twinkling in the sky above. This is twilight, and probably part of the day with which you have become completely unfamiliar. Twi (in between) light, is a significant part of the day and one that is being eroded by artificial light at night (ALAN). There is no better place to understand this than in mother nature. She orchestrates a variety of conditions, highs and lows in her daily composition, and yet, on the whole, we manage to avoid it all. So simple is it to turn on a light as it starts to get dark that we don’t even see the world changing outside. Our day has two settings: light on and light off.

Before the invention of the light globe, our bodies were kept in time through a clock-like cycle triggered by the rise and fall of the sun. Hormone-release, lack of hunger, sleepiness commences in low-level light, but with most modern homes having enough artificial light, we suppress this cycle – also known as the circadian rhythm. Professor Cain, argues that humans may be far more sensitive to lighting than previously understood and that messing up this internal system may be linked with neurological disorders, weight gain and even some cancers. As scientists understand how intrinsic light is on human, ecological and environmental health, lighting designers should also develop respect for the impact of light.

Let me state that I don’t have a medical degree, or for that matter, a lighting background either. I’m a Dark Sky Defender – the award at the back of my office drawer says so. Unlike most advocates for light pollution mitigation, I am not an ecologist or an astronomer, but a passionate layperson, who has read hundreds of articles and papers, taken notes at conferences and engaged in robust conversations with my learned colleagues until well into the night.

Whilst light pollution may just be hitting the radar of the mainstream population, we have known about the effects of light on the natural world since 1911. Hooker, D. (1911) a Florida-based biologist observed that loggerhead turtles turned towards the light as their environmental cue to head towards the ocean. Disorientated, hatchlings were dying before reaching the water either through predators’ behaviour, fatigue or choosing roadways and nearby civilisation. Understanding turtles cannot discern the difference between starlight on the water and urban environments, led to the protection of hatchling environments from urban lighting, such as Greenfleet in Bundaberg most recently.

As such, the sea turtle has been the poster child for light pollution mitigation for many years. Groups such as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), an American-based organisation, headquartered in the foothills of Tucson’s best astronomical telescopes, preached the virtues of keeping lights low, and have done so for more than 30 years. What started as a trio of friends, has become a truly global influence in keeping the skies dark for astronomers, near and far, and now conservationists day and night. Possibly, their most far-reaching education comes from their International Dark Sky Place program, which encourages community, business and industry to come together to preserve areas in which the night sky is still pristine. With over 140 locations around the world, the badge of honour for the designated sites is far more than a gimmick, but a testimony to their understanding and determination to adhere to good lighting principles. Environmental lighting principles recommended by Dr Kellie Pendoley, Western-Australian based marine biologist, with 30 years’ experience in turtle ecology, provide a framework for assessing and managing artificial lighting impacts. Most recently she was integral in developing the National Light Pollution Guidelines for Wildlife including Marine Turtles, Seabirds and Migratory Shorebirds. These Australian guidelines are the first of their kind in the world. The Guidelines emphasise the value of darkness as a natural asset and provide a benchmark for outdoor lighting of critical environments. Further cementing their significance as a conservation tool, the Guidelines were recently endorsed by the International Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species in the Wild. Kellie is Vice President of the IDA, and I’m glad to say, a fellow founding Director of the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance (ADSA).

In 1911, it was observed that loggerhead turtles turned towards the light of civilisation instead of the guiding light of the ocean.
In 1911, it was observed that loggerhead turtles turned towards the light of civilisation instead of the guiding light of the ocean.

Eight responsive, caring and action-orientated volunteers came together in 2019 to support the Board of the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance. Their mission was to expand the work of the International Dark-Sky Association with a southern hemisphere connection and a strong scientific affiliation. Comprised of lighting industry professionals, ecologists, business operators and health specialists, every influencing group has a voice in raising the multi-faceted issue, and for that matter, the simple solution. Whilst Christopher C. M. Kyba and his co-authors estimate that light pollution is growing more than 2% year on year, making it the fastest-growing pollutant in the world, the positive side is that it is easily resolved. Turn off the lights, and the pollution is gone.

ADSA is not advocating turning off all lights and living in the dark. Instead, we’re starting the conversation that conservation does not stop when the sun goes down. Furthermore, we promote the adoption of black belts – corridors of darkness, that allow nocturnal animals and insects to flourish – in urban settings. ADSA understands that although the outdoor night-lighting world may see this as a threat, it could be more positively viewed as an opportunity for positive disruption. Technology is addressing the issue of sky glow and carbon footprint and can now begin addressing the disruption of circadian rhythms and environmental stressors.

Where do I see the future of lighting? I genuinely believe there will come a time when the lighting industry and dark sky defenders will be on the same page, and that both technology and governance will keep us ‘safe’. This will come about with an open mind, constant conversation and commitment to continual improvement.

Let me explain it like this. Recently, I bought Fred, my partner in crime, an electric scooter. (For an easy getaway!) For the first week, he rode it around like a teenager full of bravado and joy, pressing the accelerator and enjoying the swoosh as he took off up the hill. A week later, he read the road rules and discovered that he was not permitted to ride on the road, the footpath, the bike path, or anywhere for that matter. Yet, since then, I’ve heard not one, but two, different documentaries on how e-scooters are the future of transport in cities. They overcome air pollution, parking problems and use renewable energy. The problem with e-scooters is that the heart-whooping technology that made a grown man squeal with delight existed before the how, what, where, and why had evolved to keep him safe.

The parallel comes with LEDs and their carbon-footprint efficiency. Yes, they’ve reduced energy expenditure, and even the best, fully-shielded streetlighting lessens skyglow, but the impact on the nocturnal ground-dwellers is still to be fully grasped.

“We already know that animal breeding patterns are altered, insect pollination reduced, and predatory patterns adversely affected – and that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.”

The rise of LEDs has had a significant effect on animal breeding patterns, insect pollination and predatory patterns.
The rise of LEDs has had a significant effect on animal breeding patterns, insect pollination and predatory patterns.

My passion for seeing lighting evolve to a more environmentally-friendly status has come through a very deep love of nature and the outdoors. More than 25 years ago, I combined my passion for travel and taking people out of their comfort zones with my love of nature. My core business, Dark Sky Traveller, has allowed people to explore the far-flung corners of the world such as Norway in polar nights, eclipses in Australia, Chile and the Faroe Islands and stargazing in the Namib Desert – all of which somewhere, somehow, had a night ensconced in darkness. It was after one such journey that I realised just how momentous the asset Australia has with the dark skies that cover much of the continent at night.

Honestly, I can’t stress enough how lucky Australians are in being able to set foot into our backyard and look up to the night sky. Astronomers believe that on a good night in outback Australia, you can see over 3000 individual stars. (I dare you to count them!) It is estimated that only 20% of the world’s population can do this. That’s 1 in 5 people in the world that can see the night sky as it was before the invention of the light globe. For those in light-polluted areas, on a weather-permitting evening, the most you will ever see is up to 27 stars… imagine that? That’s only 0.00675% of the visible night sky!

But first, to see even a few stars in the sky, you have to step outside in the dark.