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Dark times for our starry skies

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is an organisation that is working to help stop light pollution and protect the night skies. By having so much artificial light pollute the night sky, energy and money are wasted, wildlife is disrupted, and it has negative implications for human health. In essence, the IDA works to protect the night skies for present and future generations to come.

Landon Bannister, State Manager at Southern Lighting & Distribution understands the significant role in which the dark sky movement plays in our prospective universe. He argues that countless generations grew up with the wonder of the stars above, which inevitably helped them dream of bigger things but also understand their place in the universe. Now, according to the IDA, two-thirds of the world’s population resides where they cannot adequately observe a starry sky due to excessive, misdirected and obtrusive artificial light.

Landon is passionate about the importance of this movement, and when discussing, we are thrown back to a time when the dark skies movement was entirely irrelevant and the threat of our night sky was inconceivable. He confesses current generations living in big cities no longer have access to starry nights. “As a general population, we are simply too eager to make our nighttime environment resemble that of our daytime,” declares Landon. From a historical perspective, this is a recent development, given less than 100 years ago, anyone under the night sky could look up and see the stars. Now, millions of generations to come will miss this remarkable sight, while being entirely oblivious to the privileged vision we once had.

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona, Image supplied by SKYGLOW Project

Although we do not fully understand the implications of artificial light at night on human psychology, Landon argues there is a detrimental consequence to our physiological growth that is evident at present. Not only does the use of artificial light impair our view of the universe, it entirely affects our environment, safety, energy consumption and our health. “This has all sorts of negative impacts on our biological systems with countless studies linking light at night to increasing risks for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, and even breast cancer,” says Landon, while recognising the progressive changes the IDA has committed itself to. “In short, the dark skies movement isn’t just about dark skies; there is a whole environmental story at play here, and everyone working with outdoor lighting needs to be aware of the potential negative impacts of their decisions.”

Landon further explores the topic of wildlife and fauna, arguing that if humans suffer from the effects of light pollution, this is an undeniable reality for animals and their surroundings too. He believes ecosystems have evolved to need the darkness as much as they need sunlight. Landon states that the light pollution we are generating is adversely affecting a range of wildlife and ecosystems; from bird migration to turtle populations, disruption of mating seasons and even pollination and insect activity. The IDA believes the earth’s cycle of light and dark is embedded into the DNA of every plant and animal while admittedly, humans have radically disrupted this cycle. Now, the world is only just beginning to understand the effects on human development, resources and the planet.

Southern Lighting & Distribution recently completed an installation with the Launceston City Council for the Seaport and Royal Park pathway upgrades. “The engineer, (Nicolas Allen from JMG Engineers & Planners) really attacked the project in a manner that took a holistic approach to design, not just improving the energy load but also the amiability of the space for pedestrians and the overall environmental footprint,” says Landon. He confirms that it was particularly pleasing to see this change in lighting design and its application. Comparing this to the previous solution, which had a poor distribution that outsourced light into the river and wasted upward light into the night sky. Landon states that by using full cutoff LED fittings, with controlled distribution, they were able to reduce wasted light by over 400%.

This type of application means it takes half of the lumens previously required to achieve the same lighting standard, which also translates to a 75% reduction in the energy load. To lessen skyglow, JMG selected a CCT (Correlated Colour Temperature) of 3000K LED for the project, which is the maximum recommended by the IDA. Landon says this use of lighting was efficient on all accounts, confirming the installation improved the uniformity across the pathways while reducing the glare and equated to a far more pleasant experience for the users of the space than previously experienced.

When reflecting on Australia as a nation and how well we have adopted this movement, Landon believes we are severely lagging in the area of dark sky preservation. He says, “Two of the biggest issues we face is the procurement process for street lighting; one of the biggest polluters, and the lack of understanding on the value of lighting professionals.” Landon admits that The Federal Government places the Australian Energy Regulator ultimately responsible for street lighting in Australia, which leads to a misaligned set of priorities when assessing installations in this sector. He argues that in Australia we focus on maintenance, cost and energy but ignore primary human and environmental factors that should be the top two considerations in the assessment process.

Like most things, Landon believes the solution is in simple education. He explains people lack basic knowledge in the use of artificial light at night and have the misconception that using energy efficient luminaires equates to being environmentally friendly.

Landon is all too familiar with this significant pitfall in moving towards a healthier night sky and has seen it on numerous occasions throughout his 20 years within the industry. “As any designer will tell you, good design will always trump an energy efficient luminaire in delivering a truly environmentally friendly installation,” he says.

Landon believes another concern lies with the decision makers in Australia, whom he thinks should be left to the lighting professionals. “How many 400W floodlights have we all seen lighting a small tree? The common mentality of more light is better not only creates poor nocturnal environments but also contributes massively to the amount of light pollution in our skies,” he argues. Confirming that although there is a basic understanding, the lighting industry needs to further focus on educating the broader community that light quality, not light quantity, is what’s important.

Although Landon is in charge of sales at Southern Lighting & Distribution, he is extremely considerate and mindful in the progressive movements of the IDA. Respectfully, he states, “The answer is simple, we’re not about having no light at night, we just want to see more responsible installations. As a business, we have standardised on 3000K as a maximum CCT for outdoor luminaires in line with IDA recommendations.”

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, Image supplied by SKYGLOW Project

Recently, Australia was lucky enough to see the first official ‘Dark Sky Park’ which was designated to Warrumbungle National Park in New South Wales. This was a monumental achievement for the National Park, and a hopeful sign for the future protection of dark skies within Australia. $100,000 of funding went into this project to control light pollution through implementation of updated planning policies. Acknowledging the area as having an exceptional quality of starry nights; the project confirms that the sky will now and in the future, explicitly be protected from light pollution. Warrumbungle National Park is the foundation of changes we need to see in Australia with recognising and preserving our astronomy. Other International Parks designated as Dark Sky Parks include Death Valley National Park in the United States and Galloway Forest Park in Scotland. Reassuringly, these parks are becoming more present than ever, not only as a place to see the stars but to raise awareness of the problems that light pollution poses to the environment and to human health.

An essential factor to consider when understanding light pollution is LED; “Studies have shown that higher CCTs (4000K and above) which have higher components of blue in their spectrum, penetrate the atmosphere and increase light pollution,” Landon states, communicating the problems which LED presents in consideration of the dark skies. “This is at a greater rate compared to light sources with lower CCTs (3000K and below).” As almost all of the LED sources are heavily prevalent in the blue spectrum, this translates to a massive increase in light pollution in areas where LED upgrades have occurred.

On the other hand, we are presented with the positives in which LED provide to our starry nights. Southern Lighting & Distribution heavily promote full cutoff luminaires, which translates to no upward wasted light and total control of distribution (something that LED can do very well). Landon advises that LEDs are much easier to switch, which opens up all sorts of options regarding motion sensing and dimming, offering massive opportunities to reduce light pollution further.

Landon takes the moral high ground in his approach to the lighting industry and the dark skies movement. He states “In simple terms, our business is here to make money, but we have to do so in a socially responsible manner.” Landon believes the current outdoor lighting situation is not sustainable and if he sees a project heading down the wrong path, he will raise his concerns. He wants everyone to question how much light they need at night, what CCT they are using, where they are directing their light and if that light needs to operate all night or if it can be dimmed back after hours.

Australia needs to regard light pollution in the same way they regard water or air pollution.

In fact, if more organisations had the same approach as Southern Lighting & Distribution towards the dark skies movement, we would have a higher chance at preservation, creating better nighttime environments and reducing light pollution. Given the spread of artificial light means an increasing amount are no longer experiencing truly dark nights, along with the threat of wildlife, ecosystems, and human health, the dark skies movement entirely benefits our nation and future generations to come.