Light Pollution

As kids we do crazy things. The street I grew up on ended with a cul-de-sac. There was hardly ever traffic that traveled down it. My childhood best friend and I would lie in the street and stare up at the stars. Why we couldn’t do this in the grass, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it was the warmth from the asphalt that made it comfortable. There was a sense of wonder when gazing up toward the moonlight. When alone, I found refuge on the rooftop outside my bedroom window, much like Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology professor Richard Ditteon. “When I was young, on July third or July fourth for some reason I couldn’t sleep. I looked out the window and I saw these flashing lights out on the horizon. I thought they were fireworks. I climbed out onto the roof of the house and just layed there and watched them. Later in my life I realized they were the Northern Lights. I got to see them when I was young and didn’t even know I was seeing them,” Ditteon said.

For me, gazing up at the stars screeched to a halt when our street decided they “needed” street lights. While pollution is often associated with factories, car exhaust and dumping raw material into water, light can pollute, too. “It is adding something to nature that shouldn’t be there,” Ditteon added. Light pollution obscures the stars in the night for city dwellers, interferes with astronomical observatories, and, like any other form of pollution, disrupts ecosystems and has adverse health effects.

Directing light

As the director of the Oakley Observatory on the campus of Rose-Hulman, star gazing is a top priority. When the construction began for the Wal-Mart on the east side of Terre Haute, Richard was concerned it would negatively affect viewing opportunities for students. He contacted the construction company with his concerns. He was advised Wal-Mart has a national policy of using full cut-off light fixtures. A full cut-off type of light fixture can make a difference in reducing light pollution. Additionally, there are full shielded and partially shielded lamps that help direct light down and prevent it from escaping from a site. “You can have an area that is well lit, but you just have to put a little more thought into the lighting,” Ditteon said.

Light pollution can be divided into two main categories: annoying light that intrudes on an otherwise natural or low-light setting; and excessive light (generally indoors) that leads to discomfort and adverse health effects. Improperly chosen light fixtures send lights out in every direction, and up into the sky, where it is unnecessary. It is better to have light that is not in direct line of sight to the exterior of the building. If they are in a direct line of sight position, light will be wasted. Low intensive lights are good options.

“We only have one earth, we all have to share it and be good citizens of that earth. Thinking carefully about your lighting choices is just another example of that. We want to be kind to each other and we don’t want to annoy other people with our lights,” Ditteon said.

Birds affected by light pollution

For the last 15 years Don Gorney has been an environmental volunteer and employee of various environmental nonprofits. For a stint of those years he served as the director of Bird Conservation and Educations for Amos/Butler Audubon in Indianapolis. He says some species of birds rely on stars to navigate migration routes at night. “When birds encounter an urban environment that have a lot of lighting especially upward directed lighting, it distracts them,” Gorney said. It is believed that lighting from large buildings disrupts their navigation and results in birds striking the building early the next morning when they are reorienting themselves with the environment.

In 2008, Indianapolis’s Audubon Society formed “Lights Out Indy,” an effort to highlight the important issue of birds hitting building windows in downtown Indianapolis. Over the course of four years, in a very limited volunteer effort, they counted 1,300 birds, comprising of 85 species, which died due to building strikes. Gorney says the Indiana Statehouse has approximately 82 flood lights highlighting the Capitol structure, each of the flood lights is 1,000 watts. Every hour the Capitol uses energy to illuminate the building with upward directed lighting. Gorney adds that the birds are dying from the Capitol’s poor lighting design.

“The vast majority of birds are insectivores, insect eating machines. During the summer, birds eat billions of insects. Birds are a component of an ecosystem. Without them being here, you are going to have things get out of balance and the forests are going to deteriorate,” Gorney said.

Wish upon a star

If you go out and see the night sky in a good location, it is an awe-inspiring experience. There is no reason we can’t experience it from our own backyards, by lying in the street or sitting on the roof, just by everyone using proper lighting.

“From an aesthetic standpoint there is a loss and there is also a loss of wonder and amazement and dreams of looking up at the sky and being able to see satellites in orbit, or the international space station, comets and meteors. Urban kids don’t have that opportunity anymore,” Gorney said.

Rose-Hulman’s Astronomy Club hosts opportunities for the public to visit the Oakley Observatory during the school year. For more information visit this page.


Submitted by Jane Santucci