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Light pollution harms not just stargazers

It throws wildlife out of whack and diminishes public safety.

By Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor / December 1, 2008

A view from Park Ridge Road in Newport Beach, Calif., shows Orange County lights in the night sky. Light pollution has effects on wild species in the area.

Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee / Orange County Register / KRT / FILE

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For students of astronomy, Sunday and Monday night is the equivalent of a World Cup Final, a new Mac operating system, and a Zeppelin reunion show all rolled into one.

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That's because, as Horizons guest blogger Pete Spotts noted in his post Sunday, Jupiter, Venus, and the moon will gather to direct a lopsided frown at North America, an arrangement that won't happen again for another 44 years.

But even on a clear night, many would-be astronomers are missing out on this rare celestial scowl, instead being treated to a dull haze punctuated by only the nearest or brightest objects, Jupiter not being one of them. So pervasive is this murky veil that the National Park Service estimates that two-thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their homes. Had Carl Sagan spent his whole life in a contemporary US city, he'd no doubt have marveled at the dozens and dozens of lights dotting the firmament.

The cause of this stellar pall? Carelessly designed streetlamp fixtures, signs, and office lighting controls that pointlessly illuminate the sky, blocking our view of the universe.

Harmful to wildlife, harmful to humans

But stymied stargazers may be the least of our worries. Light pollution also wreaks havoc on ecosystems. Migratory birds, accustomed to navigating by the stars, smack into brightly lit office buildings. Others endlessly circle spotlights and gas flares until they drop dead by the thousands. Owls lose the element of surprise over their prey. Rodents forage more cautiously. Insects are drawn to their deaths. Frog orchestras miss their cues. Mating schedules get thrown off. Migrations start late, consigning itinerant creatures to starvation.

And then there's the baby sea turtles. For almost the entire history of the species, the brightest object in the night sky was the moon, which hatchlings would use to guide them to the ocean. But with the rise in poorly designed artificial lighting, the young reptiles are now likely to strike out toward the minimart across the highway from the beach.

It's not just animals who are being flummoxed by our efforts to create a permanent daylight. As this month's National Geographic points out, we're making an end-run around our own circadian rhythms. Verlyn Klinkenborg writes:

For the past century or so, we've been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body's sensitive response to light. The consequences of our bright new world are more readily perceptible in less adaptable creatures living in the peripheral glow of our prosperity. But for humans, too, light pollution may take a biological toll.

Not even safe

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