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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Nightlight

Air Date: Week of March 29, 2002

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Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Tom Springer explains how raising a new barn raised his consciousness about night pollution.

Transcript

ROSS: It's Living on Earth. I'm Pippin Ross. Coming up, surf, sand and science in California's Laguna Beach. But first, in our heavily urbanized world, we tend to equate bright lights with safety. What we forget, says commentator Tom Springer, is too much artificial light can blur the distinction between night and day.

SPRINGER: One of the things I love most about living in the country is the darkness of the night sky. That's why I never put a yard light outside my farmhouse. I didn't want manmade illumination to interfere with the panorama of stars and planets overhead.

Then last year, on a cold winter night, I was jarred awake by a light of terrible brilliance. My old barn was on fire. Within minutes, only the charred timber frame remained, stark and black amid a sea of flame. The fire marshal said the cause was arson. And no suspects were ever found.

With insurance money, I've hired a crew of Amish carpenters to build a new wooden barn. But as it nears completion, I'm faced with a dilemma. On one hand, I'd like to keep this barn secure. And bright lights are supposed to scare away unwanted visitors, both animal and human. Yet, I am unwilling to sacrifice my starry sky to the tyranny of a petty arsonist.

Seeking a solution, I did some research, and found out that darkness is a valuable resource for more than just stargazing. I learned that when humans get too much light during sleeping hours, they become groggy, confused and depressed. In one study, people who slept in a room bathed by the glow of a streetlight were more prone to hormone-related cancers. And much to my dismay, even the little green nightlight that I recently bought for my daughter's room can cause problems. The experts say children younger than two who sleep with a nightlight on are more likely to become nearsighted before they reach adulthood.

But at least humans can pull down the window shade to escape light pollution. Imagine what it's like if you're a bird that relies on the stars and moon to navigate. Each year, tens of thousands of them die when they crash into buildings and radio towers obscured by light pollution. The same fate awaits juvenile sea turtles. Once they emerge from their nests along the beach, the little hatchlings are fatally attracted to streetlights in floodlit parking lots.

Light pollution is far worse today than it was a few decades ago. On average, a modern single-family home uses 40% more kilowatt-hours of lighting than in 1970. Yet, much of this costly illumination never hits its intended target. Up to one-third of all outdoor lighting shines upwards and sideways and does little more than bathe the sky in a wasteful display of electricity.

As for my barn, an electrician friend suggested I use gooseneck fixtures with circular shields to aim the light downward, the kind used by gas stations during the 1940s and '50s. He also recommends motion detectors, which turn the lights on only when there is an intruder present. I'll never understand why someone would burn down a beautiful old barn. But I do know that what we see in the evening sky, whether it's twinkling stars or the orange glare of suburbia, is a reflection of how we treat the world. And we shouldn't allow the darkness that lies within a few human hearts to overcome what's good about the night.

[MUSIC: John Corigliano, "Fancy on a Bach Air," PHANTASMAGORIA (Sony – 2000)]

ROSS: Commentator Tom Springer lives in Three Rivers, Michigan and comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

 

 

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