by Theresa Peluso

Living out here in Mississippi Mills, we probably take for granted the gift of experiencing starry nights, when billions of sparkling lights in the sky whisper to us of the immensity of the universe and of the unknown worlds existing in infinite space and time. Sometimes it takes a joyful exclamation by out-of-town visitors, gazing upwards on a sultry summer night, to remind us of the marvels of our star-filled skies.

One of the reasons we’re blessed with this gift, is because our Community Official Plan (COP) has a Dark Skies policy. Wikipedia defines this term as follows: “A dark-sky preserve is an area, usually surrounding a park or observatory, that is kept free of artificial light pollution. The purpose of a dark-sky preserve is generally to promote astronomy.”

If you flip through the COP to Section 4.1.3 Night Skies, you’ll find this explanation:

The high quality of darkness of the night skies in Mississippi Mills is a defining element of the rural character of the area. The Fred Lossing Observatory, located at the Mill of Kintail, is a significant regional facility and very much dependent upon high quality of darkness of the night sky for its function.

“Good Neighbour” lighting is described as the practice of installing and maintaining outdoor lighting fixtures that direct sufficient light downward and minimize light trespass and blinding glare. Good Neighbour lighting enhances the safety of citizens and increases the security of property. Good Neighbour lighting increases the visibility of hazards, improves the safety of citizens and provides a sense of security in the community.

(COP adopted and approved in August 2006)

The benefits are many. Referring to the COP again:

The Town benefits from responsible, well-designed lighting in the following ways:

  •  it minimizes energy use;
  •  it reduces operating and maintenance costs;
  •  it increases the safety of citizens;
  •  it maintains and enhances the quality of darkness of the night skies; and,
  •  it can enhance property values.

Poor lighting can give rise to:

  •  glare which can severely hamper the vision of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists and which can reduce security by producing dark shadows;
  •  light trespass which may direct light onto neighbouring properties and into windows thereby reducing privacy;
  • sky glow which directs lighting upwards and undermines the integrity of night sky resources. Sky glow symbolises wasted energy and washes out our view of the night sky;
  •  energy waste which increases operating and environmental costs associated with energy production.

After reading this, who can argue with the benefits of a Dark Sky policy?

But wait! There’s more! The benefits enumerated in the COP don’t include the economic returns. Ian Sample, science correspondent for the Guardian, reports that there is an increasing push in England and Scotland to create more dark-sky preserves. It’s not only good for wildlife, but also for the economy:

“There are encouraging signs that dark sky parks help to boost local economies in the colder months. A survey of 35 guesthouses and B&Bs by Forestry Commission Scotland found that astro-tourism pushed off-season winter takings up by £40,000 around the UK’s first dark sky park, in Galloway.” (9 December 2013)

In addition to the negative effects listed in the Town of Mississippi Mills COP, there are significant harmful impacts on the health of humans, plants and animals. Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution, an article by Ron Chepesiuk in Environews, outlines the results of several studies on the effects of light pollution. As Chepesiuk puts it: “Many environmentalists, naturalists, and medical researchers consider light pollution to be one of the fastest growing and most pervasive forms of environmental pollution. And a growing body of scientific research suggests that light pollution can have lasting adverse effects on both human and wildlife health.” (article published by Environmental Health Perspectives and archived in PubMedCentral (PMC), Jan. 2009)

Without going into a lot of scientific detail, I have summarized the main findings in this article. I would recommend that you read the article yourself at the weblink (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2627884/ ).

In the case of humans, the health issues begin when light photons hit the retina. If you live in a brightly lit city and don’t have blackout shades, the night-time electric lighting will hit your retina during your waking moments at night and affect your sleep cycle. As with almost all organisms, human physiologic processes function according to a 24-hour day/night cycle, known as the circadian clock. This circadian clock affects brain wave patterns, hormone production, cell regulation, and other biologic activities. If this clock is disrupted, it may lead to several medical disorders, including depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease and cancer. A number of scientists investigating the link between disrupted circadian rhythms and the increase in breast and prostate cancers, obesity, and early-onset diabetes have found these illnesses to be positively correlated with patterns of artificial light generated during the night and day. Some researchers believe that the production of melatonin, a hormone secreted at night by the pineal gland, is drastically reduced in the presence of light. This hormone triggers a host of biologic activities, possibly including a decrease in the body’s production of estrogen. In addition, there are other “clock” genes—nine have so far been identified—which carry the genetic instructions to produce protein products that control circadian rhythm.

The flora and fauna in our natural environment , which, for millennia, developed feeding, growth, movement and reproduction patterns that served them well until the invention of artificial light in 1879, have become passive victims for a number of reasons.

Prolonged exposure to artificial light reduces the ability of trees to adjust to seasonal variations, which disrupts their growth, and affects the wildlife that depend on these trees for food and shelter. Research on insects, turtles, birds, fish, reptiles, and other wildlife species in both urban centres and rural areas, shows that their behaviours, foraging areas and breeding cycles are affected by light pollution.

During egg-hatching time, female sea turtles get disoriented by brightly-lit beaches. Newly hatched turtles, instead of heading for the sea, get drawn by artificial light sources away from the shore, becoming dehydrated and exhausted, and usually meeting an untimely end.

Light pollution also disrupts the behaviour of birds. The approximately 200 species of birds that migrate at night over North America are routinely disoriented by brightly lit buildings, often flying into them and surrounding structures. The estimates as to the number of birds dying from collisions across North America annually, range from 98 million to nearly a billion.

Frogs have been found to inhibit their mating calls when they are exposed to excessive light at night, reducing their reproductive capacity. And what about wolves, foxes, cougars and other predators relying on the cover of darkness to conceal themselves from their prey? They must curse Thomas Edison when their presence is revealed just as they are about to close in on the kill. Artificial light is also blamed for declines in populations of North American moths. Just think of all the moths we ourselves have killed with our patio lights and uncurtained windows during our lifetime. Almost all small rodents and carnivores, 80% of marsupials, and 20% of primates are nocturnal, so light pollution clearly affects the biological clocks, feeding patterns and movements of an incredible number of animals.

There you have it: Light pollution not only interferes with our ability to enjoy the night sky (apparently most of the people in the U.S. in Europe have already lost the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye), it has negative health impacts on the health of humans, plants and wildlife.

What can we do to reduce light pollution? Reduce the light escaping from your home by putting your exterior lights on motion detectors and using blackout blinds. Direct any illumination, both indoors and out, towards the floor (task lighting) or ground. Encourage office building managers to turn off the lights during the times of the year that birds are migrating. Boycott retail establishments that are overly lit, and let them know why. Patronize businesses that respect the dark skies policy. Inform your elected representatives of the dangers of light pollution, and support initiatives to promote dark skies. When enjoying the wilderness at your camp or cottage, keep exterior lights off as much as possible. If you would like more information on lighting that complies with the Town’s dark skies by-laws and on astronomy courses and talks at the Fred Lossing Observatory (novices are welcome!), visit the websites listed below. By the way, did you know that the Fred Lossing Observatory is the home of the discovery of five comets? In fact, it’s the only permanent installation in North America where comets have been discovered, not by robotic search, but by people patiently scanning the skies with a telescope to find them through the eyepiece.

Town website: http://www.mississippimills.ca/en/live/resources/Illuminationby-lawandinformation.pdf which refers to https://millstonenews.com/2012/08/suppliers-of-good-neighbour-lighting.html See also the following article and references: http://www.mvc.on.ca/january-darkness-for-night/ https://millstonenews.com/science-nature/night-sky-news https://millstonenews.com/2014/01/january-darkness-for-night.html

I wish we may, I wish we might, have starry skies – every night!