By Michele S. Byers
Step outside at night and gaze up at the sky. Do you see a dim orangey glow? If so, you are experiencing the modern problem of light pollution. Our multitude of outdoor lights – streetlights, home lighting, stores, illuminated signs and more – obscure the magnificent dome of constellations and planets that have inspired a sense of wonder since the earliest days of mankind.
Raising awareness about light pollution and promoting solutions is the goal of International Dark Sky Week, April 15-21.
“Before the advent of electric lights in the 20th century, our ancestors experienced a night sky brimming with stars that inspired science, religion, philosophy, art and literature, including some of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets,” according to the International Dark Sky Association, the event’s sponsor.
The association believes a dark night sky is a part of our “common heritage” and is in danger of being missed by younger generations. Millions of children across the globe may never experience the sight of our galaxy, the Milky Way.
But the problem is deeper than that. A growing body of research suggests the loss of dark skies can impact human health and the rhythms of the natural world.
For nocturnal animals, artificial light at night can disrupt feeding and mating patterns. Light pollution can also have negative impacts on migrating birds, sea turtle hatchlings, and insects.
For humans, excessive exposure to artificial light at night – especially blue light – has been linked to increased risks for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes and breast cancer.
What can you do? Here are some ideas:
• Shield outdoor lighting around your home, or at least angle it downward to reduce “light trespass” beyond your property. Some towns, like Tewksbury Township in Hunterdon County, have ordinances requiring this. Turn on outdoor lights only when and where needed, and use motion detectors and timers.
• Download, watch and share “Losing the Dark,” a public service video about light pollution. It’s free and available in 13 languages – go to www.darksky.org/resources/ losing-the-dark/
• Talk to your neighbors and community leaders. Explain that poorly shielded fixtures waste energy, produce glare and reduce visibility of the night sky.
• Become a “citizen scientist” and contribute to a global database of light pollution measurements. Visit the Globe at Night website at www.globeatnight.org and document light pollution in your neighborhood.
• Take pictures and enter the 2018 International Earth and Sky Photo Contest, which aims to educate the public about light pollution. Go to The World at Night website at http://twanight.org/newTwan/index.asp to see stunning night sky photos from around the world and find out how to participate in this year’s contest.
• Throw a star party. Many astronomy clubs and International Dark Sky Places are celebrating the week by holding public events under the stars.
Although New Jersey is a fairly urbanized state, it has some great “dark sky” spots, including the Pine Barrens and parts of our northwestern counties.
New Jersey also has some fantastic astronomy clubs, including the New Jersey Astronomical Association, Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, Amateur Astronomers Inc. of Cranford, the Skyland Star Gazers of East Hanover, Sheep Hill Astronomical Association of Boonton, the North West Jersey Amateur Astronomers of Blairstown, the North Jersey Astronomical Group of Montclair, the Morris Museum Astronomical Society, the South Jersey Astronomy Club, the Astronomical Society of the Toms River Area and the West Jersey Astronomical Society of Willingboro.
These clubs sponsor star watches and star parties to encourage the public to enjoy views of the night skies through powerful telescopes. Some, like the North Jersey Astronomical Association, are located at observatories.
So visit a dark sky place, relax and take in the view. You will feel connected to ancient civilizations that experienced, and revered, the same celestial panorama. And remember that preserving New Jersey’s open spaces helps protect our remaining dark skies.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.