10 Nov

Who Needs Darkness?

An observatory in Hawaii.

An observatory in Hawaii.

Note: all photos for this story come from www.thecitydark.com

What do we lose when we lose the night? When our skies are lit 24 hours a day, and the stars are no longer visible? Rhode Island Natural History Survey (www.rinhs.org) raised those questions Saturday night on the URI campus as part of a showing of the film “The City Dark”. The event kicked off Rhode Island’s first Natural History week, and Executive Director David Gregg began the evening with reading the proclamation, signed by Governor Lincoln Chafee.

“The City Dark” focuses on the tremendous expansion of artificial light over the past decades and its impact on the environment. Gregg, a moth collector since the age of 13, said “Moths are in trouble. I’ve noticed that the ones I’m finding today are neither as large nor as numerous as those of years past.” He recalled the 2004 BioBlitz, an annual event dedicated to counting all living species in a given area. That year, BioBlitz was held at Alton Jones, a location surrounded by thousands of acres of unlit woods. Unlit, that is, except for a large vapor lamp in the parking lot that stayed on all night. “I remember the next day, people bringing me moths they had collected – in pieces. They had a wing here or a wing there, and very few were intact. Then it dawned on me that the mockingbirds in the area had begun to feed on them at dawn, while the moths were still stunned in the lamplight and hanging around the outer edges of trees. And that was just one light in the midst of all that darkness.” If one lamp had such an impact, then how do thousands of lights affect the natural world?

“The City Dark” (www.thecitydark.com) explores the issue from several perspectives. Naturally, astronomers bemoan the loss of light because of its affect on making observations, but the film goes further. It raises important questions about how a sky that is now lit 24 hours a day affects wildlife, such as birds or turtles. It explores the increasing evidence that the disruption of the circadian rhythms in overnight workers may increase the likelihood of contracting cancer. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it contemplates the impact that an inability to recognize the human role in the universe may have.

A sampling of birds killed while attempting to navigate through a city skyscape..  These, along with many others, came from a single building.

A sampling of birds killed while attempting to navigate through a city skyscape.. These, along with many others, came from a single building.

One of the astronomers from the film put it this way: “If we lived on a planet that was opaque to the universe beyond, science…would have been terribly distorted. We once thought that we were at the center of the solar system, and we weren’t. We once thought that the sun was the center of the Milky Way, and that’s not true either. In my lifetime, we believed that there weren’t any other planets than those that revolve around our sun, and because we were able to look out at the sky, we now have a very different picture of that universe, one that is filled with planets. Seeing the universe around us tells us about our place in the universe, and to close that door would change the character of humankind entirely.”

How many constellations can you see in Times Square?  Not too many...

How many constellations can you see in Times Square? Not too many…

After the film, Gregg took members of the audience just outside the building to a walkway running between several other parts of campus. All around the area were tall lights that turned the surroundings into daylight. Several of them were large vapor lamps, which Gregg had been told were intended to be just temporary placements until the tall lamp posts were installed. And yet, here they were, still blazing away. “Probably 40% of the light from these lamps is not even shining where it should,” Gregg said. “The random placement of these lights wastes energy and money, and clearly contributes to light pollution.” Thus far, Gregg’s complaints about the lighting have produced no results.

As the crowd made their own observations about the effect of light pollution, David Gregg made a final observation. He pointed to a faint object in the sky, easily missed and discernible only by squinting. In a universe of billions of stars and galaxies, here in the glare of lights, just one object barely shone through: a single star.

Hugh Markey is a freelance writer, naturalist, and teacher who lives in Richmond. .

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