Dark Skies

By Tom Halton

It was late evening in the Dublin-Wicklow mountains and as we crested the ridge, Professor Brian Espey who was guiding me on the walk, pointed to what looked like an unusually large and brilliant red star just risen above the circling horizon of dark mountains beyond. “At last, Tom! Mars.” he said simply and in that short phrase illustrated all he needed to say about the importance of Dark Skies. Invisible from the city, drowned in a sea of artificial light, our neighbouring planet was visible to the naked eye and shone like a beacon among the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere blanketing the night sky in sparkling beauty.

As a child I was enchanted, not only by the fairies as I was often teased, but also by astronomy and astrophysics. For my fifth birthday my aunt gave me Dr. H. C. Kings Book of Astronomy instead of the fairy stories she usually read with me when she visited. The book was a revelation and kindled a passion that has stayed with me since then. The village where I grew up in Middle Ireland (when reading Tolkien I often thought of it as somewhat like the Shire) although lit by artificial street lights at night, when you went any distance outside, or climbed the encircling hills, was but a small and relatively faint islet of illumination in a sea of darkness lit by the glorious light show of the night sky.

Today, according to Dr. Espey, 80% of the world’s population lives in urban centres so brightly lit that the night sky is often all but invisible against the city glow. In the outer suburbs, and sometimes in city parks at night, you might say, the sky overhead is visible and you can identify stars. Yes, but you can only see the brightest stars and only those within a small arc more or less directly overhead. The magnificence of the vastness above us is drowned out by the incandescence we have created. This is new to humanity. We have lit up our communities night and day in the last one hundred and fifty years in a way that has effectively separated us from the night environment.

Does this affect us? As a species we, like all creatures on Earth, have followed circadian rhythms of night and day, tides and seasonal changes, for our entire evolutionary history. These rhythms have been embedded in our cells and psyches over millions, even billions, of years. Logically it appears evident that disrupting these basic flows within us must have some effect, but is there evidence to support this hypothesis?

Dr. Espey refers to research by University of Melbourne, Australia, Behavioural Ecologist Doctor Theresa Jones. Dr. Jones has focused on the impact that artificial night lighting has on biological processes in humans and animals and her results show the increased use of artificial lighting is having an impact on the physiology of humans, animals, insects and plants.

Dr. Espey points out that a major impact relates to the regulation of circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles in humans and both nocturnal and diurnal animals by the naturally produced chemical melatonin. When night-time falls, the production of melatonin in the body stops, signaling the body to shut down and go to sleep, and conversely, when daylight breaks, the body increases melatonin production telling the body to wake up.

“Animals are shifting their behavior [patterns] because of the extra lights at night,” according to Dr Jones as quoted in the Newcastle Herald, New South Wales, Australia. “Animals that are active during the day and sleep at night suddenly have their day time extended because there is no darkness anymore, and nocturnal animals who want to be active in the dark might try to move away from their normal habitats to escape from the light.” She adds that “Changing the amount of light at night also means we are masking the seasons, which can lead to reproduction changes where offspring are born at the wrong time of the year and can then lead to food availability issues where foods aren’t produced at the right time.”

Dr. Espey also talked about the International Dark Skies movement, one of whose founders, Landon Bannister, echoes and expands on the work of Dr. Jones, in an article published in the Examiner of Tasmania, Australia, pointing out that the drowning of the night sky by artificial light is having deleterious effects on other species. According to Mr. Bannister “It’s starting to throw out bird migration where birds need the stars to navigate, loggerhead turtles are in massive decline because they use moonlight to find places to hatch their eggs but are seeing the big bright lights of cities and going the wrong way, and a German study found that the biomass of insects is 30 per cent less than it was a decade ago, with links to light pollution, which has flow on effects for pollination and fauna”.

Perhaps even more concerning, according to Mr. Bannister, are studies detailing the impacts of always on illumination on human health, where sleep disorders, depression and emotional disorders are being linked to light and the disruption of our circadian rhythms. “Artificial light is now also linked to things like obesity, diabetes and even breast cancer. In Denmark night shift workers sued the government because of light issues, where 82 workers developed breast cancer that was linked to working in a too-brightly lit environment at night.”

Dr. Espey underlines that the Dark Skies movement is not against the use of artificial light, but that Dark Skies proponents advocate the use of light in appropriate and efficient ways. Very few governments and policy makers are attuned to the light pollution problem, and so urban lighting decisions are being made that exacerbate, rather than reduce, the problem and its accompanying inefficiencies.

According to Dr. Espey “Globally we estimate that over 30 per cent of lighting outdoors is actually wasted, which is quite considerable when 20 per cent of our total energy use is used on outdoor lighting,” he says. “As an example of bad urban lighting, my street lights were upgraded recently.  They are shooting half of their light sideways, so the light is not hitting the street where people need them and instead are shining in someone’s front yard.”

Compounding this issue is the overuse of LED lighting. Energy efficiencies available from LED are not being realized because a greater number of lights are now being installed. The higher levels of blue light in LED, which has the effect of being a whiter light, penetrate the atmosphere at greater levels than traditional light sources, and cause increased “sky-glow”.

Melatonin is also especially sensitive to this blue LED light, and it is thus having a greater impact on circadian rhythms. “It is just about implementing common sense solutions, putting light where light is needed, controlling the light, and removing the glare,” according to both Dr. Espey. “Does our city need to be as bright at three in the morning as it does at nine PM?  If we have pathways should they be on motion sensors? Do lights need to be on all the time when no-one is in the park?”

Humans evolved from sitting around campfires and walking by moonlight, where our bodies are designed for the warm, low level, light of evening, and our eyes, via pupil dilation and un-dilation, were designed to protect themselves from harsh lighting glare. Lighting affects our emotions.  If our outdoor environments are bright and harsh of an evening then we are not going to want to stay in them because it doesn’t feel natural to us.

Mr. Bannister uses the example of hospitality lighting, as well as lighting used at the festival Dark Mofo, whose director Leigh Carmichael is a member of the Dark Sky movement, and who has indicated that he would like to see all city lights dimmed as part of the event in future.

“The hospitality industry trades on lighting, spending a lot of time and effort on low-level lighting because they want you to stay longer and spend more,” Mr Bannister says. “We need to do that for our cities.  We don’t need to make our cities brighter at night by putting in more lighting and creating a day-time environment.  Instead we need to think about them as a totally separate environment, to create dual economies, and be aware of night-time lighting needs.”

He believes the use of fire and red light throughout Dark Mofo is a brilliant idea. “Red as a visual light source is a lot easier to look at, a lot less glary, and it cuts about 80 per cent of light, so the whole city dims. It is great to see more people out at that time of year, and for me, I’m sure that the feeling of the city – being a little bit dimmer, less glary and more human – plays a big part in that.”

Dr. Espey observed in our conversation, Plato discoursed on how perception is affected by environment – the case of the philosopher who lives in a cave and never sees the sky leads to a skewed view of life. Again and again in literature we have references to the night sky and celestial phenomena that were familiar to generations before us but which now mean little to those not versed in astronomy or living in remote areas. Oscar Wilde one remarked “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. How many of us can see the stars now, whether in the gutter or looking out from penthouse balconies in glittering cityscapes?

The Dark Skies project is a worldwide effort to preserve access to darkness and dark skies uncluttered with blinding light for us all and for future generations. There are officially designated Dark Skies preserves in a number of areas on our planet. There are currently twelve Dark Skies designated areas in Ireland and the UK including the Dark Skies Reserve in Kerry, on the Atlantic seacoast of south-western Ireland. This area hosted the remote hideout of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Skellig islands, where the night sky is resplendent with the stars and dust clouds of the Milky Way arcing overhead.

A Dark Skies park is being developed near Ballincollig, Mayo, again in the west of Ireland, where the beautiful photographs accompanying this article were taken by Brian Wilson. The Mayo park, like the Kerry Dark Skies Reserve, will offer year round events and experiences for aspiring Dark Skies aficionados from galaxy watching to the beautiful Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis and story telling around the fire on nights where the skies are overcast.

What are we missing by blotting out the universe? What is this doing to our sense of wonder and appreciation of natural beauty? What does it do to our understanding of ourselves and our place in existence? The Dark Skies movement is gathering pace with more people becoming aware of the implications of overuse of bright light. There are health issues and especially mind-body synchronization problems that severely impact our quality of life.

On our honeymoon, my wife and I traveled in New Zealand and one evening while driving from Milford Sound back to our hotel in Queenstown, night fell when we were far from towns or, apparently, any habitation. We were spellbound. We had to stop and get out to look at the night sky. We were awestruck by the immensity that surrounded us. The Galaxy filled the sky above us from horizon to horizon in a spectacular display of stars and nebulae not only visible to the naked eye but startling in its brilliance and diversity.

Just as it is vitally important we resolve our environmental pollution, carbon footprint, and threats to the survival of other species on our planet, it is also vital to preserve our skies and our darkness. We are creatures of our environment, children of the earth and the cosmos. Unless we can see and feel our relationship with our planet, solar system, and our universe, how can we remove the greedy blinkers we have fashioned for our eyes that blind us to who we are and what we need to do to thrive in concert with our Earth and all that live here with us? We need our planet and our dark skies to survive and thrive.

How to support Dark Skies

If you wish to support the Dark Skies movement in Ireland, please visit Dark Sky Ireland

If you wish to find out more and support Dark Skies further afield, please visit the International Dark Sky Association

Dark Skies Festival in the Hebrides, Scotland

In 2019, The Hebridean Isles off the Atlantic coast of Scotland celebrated a Dark Skies Festival on the Isle of Lewis from 8-21 February. Speakers included Chris Lintott from BBC’s The Sky at Night,science presenter Heather Couper and Astronomer Royal for Scotland, John Brown.There were also live music performances and screenings of films, including The Rocket Post and the silent movie Wunder Der Schöpfung. Arts centre An Lanntair, Stornoway Astronomical Society, Calanais Visitor Centre, Gallan Head Community Trust and Lews Castle College UHI were involved in the festival. Stargazing events were held at Gallan Headand the Calanais Standing Stones. For more information, please read First Hebridean Dark Skies Festival to be held