Yerkes Observatory Painting at Night

There’s More To The Dark Than Meets The Eye

Recently, four high school students, Edward Byrd, Melynna Arreola-Quiroga, Jack Adams, and Victoria Zaraza, presented their data on the effects of light pollution along with suggestions about how to light homes and streets without infringing on the nighttime sky.

All life on earth needs daytime sunlight to survive, but we also need the nighttime dark to stay healthy and be comfortable.

Over-lighting our environment adversely affects our health, our environment, and even our economy. It is also affecting our culture. Once, the Milky Way, a bright band of millions of stars and luminous dust and gas, was clearly visible in the night sky. While the white path of light is still faintly visible in the Geneva Lake area, it is estimated that 80 percent of the U.S. population cannot see the Milky Way from their backyards or city streets.


The Lake Geneva Public Library hosted the presentation.  A recording of the one hour can be found on the Lake Geneva Library Facebook page.  The four students are participants with the dark skies education projects at Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM (GLAS),  a nonprofit science, technology, engineering, arts, and math education program created by staff members of Yerkes Observatory after the observatory closed in October 2018.


Using information collected from the Dark Skies Initiative, a national organization promoting the use of less light during the night, and some videos demonstrating the effects of light pollution, the students’ presentation shed some light on a sobering situation.


In cities, night is banished with artificial illumination from street lamps, private home lighting, and commercial lights, said Edward, a student in Skokie, Ill.  The light pollution washes out the stars and turns night into a pseudo day.  


That artificial daylight is wreaking havoc with human and animal sleep rhythms and is negatively affecting our health, he said.  Most of the light from artificial lighting is in the blue-white range, similar to the light from the sun, Edward said. That blue-white lighting fools the brain into thinking nighttime is still daylight, affecting human sleep rhythms. 


“According to the American Medical Association, blue-rich white LED street lighting is five times more disruptive to our sleep cycle than conventional street lighting,” Edward said.  But it also affects our endocrine system, causing our brains to create less melatonin than it needs for health. That chemical imbalance in our bodies may cause a series of health issues from insomnia to cancer, Edward said.


Humans aren’t the only creatures affected, he said. Too much nighttime light slows procreation and growth in frogs. And there are species of fish and insects, including Atlantic salmon and the monarch butterfly, that migrate thousands of miles using the stars. Without starlight, they become confused and lost, Edward said.


In the United States, this artificial daylight is generated with 160 million public and commercial lights, said Melynna, a Badger High School student. About 30 percent of that light just goes into the glow, not serving any real purpose. The annual loss in unnecessary energy costs is about $3 billion, she said.


The students recognized that people need light to see their way in the dark and to find their ways home. Some use light to protect their property from theft.  But more nighttime light does not mean more safety, said Jack Adams, a Badger student. “There is a common misconception that lighting equals safety,” Adams said.  Too much light compromises human night vision, he said, and the glare from too much light can be just as blinding to drivers and boaters as complete darkness.


Harsh lighting creates areas of bright light, but also deep shadow where thieves and robbers can hide. And an over-lit house can show would-be burglars what’s inside, he said.  Criminals are not afraid of the light, said Adams. A study of police reports from across the country showed that 75 to 80 percent of crime occurs in the daytime, Adams said.


Shoreline lighting on a lake like Geneva Lake can complicate nighttime boating, Adams said. Shoreline lighting reflects off the water, sometimes creating a confusing pattern of light and dark, making navigation difficult. Victoria Zaraza of Bigfoot High School noted all of the homes facing Geneva Lake use outdoor lighting. She interviewed residents living on the south side of Geneva Lake, to find out why.


Mostly, the lighting was for safety, both for crime prevention, but also to illuminate paths and piers, she said.  More information and education about light pollution is needed.  “Many of the homeowners I interviewed don’t know many of the effects the light may have on their health, the environment, and the night sky,” Victoria said.  


Residents can effectively light their property without glare by following some simple rules, Victoria said.  First, shield the lights so the light is focused downward and on the object to be illuminated.  Then make sure the light is just adequate. Victoria recommended LED and low-wattage lighting. 


Local sensitivity to nighttime lighting started with Yerkes Observatory, Williams  Bay. Light pollution makes it difficult for astronomers using ground-based telescopes to study the sky.  The lakeside communities approved local lighting ordinances, but over time the night sky in the Geneva Lake area appears to be getting brighter.


The students at GLAS decided that more education about light pollution and responsible nighttime lighting was necessary. In 2017, a local  lakeside resident started a local chapter of the Dark Skies Initiative.  The initiative is an international organization that encourages using less light to do more work, reduce light pollution, and turn the night sky dark again.

Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM has since taken responsibility for maintaining the Geneva Lake Dark Skies Initiative, its website and its Facebook page.  


In addition, some students participating in GLAS are designing and building an inexpensive sensor, as part of the Lake Environment Night Sky Sensor (or LENSS) that measures the level of nighttime light and records the sky quality data. The students plan to offer the detectors to lakeside residents who will post them in their yards. The nighttime light data will be transmitted from the detectors to a computer at GLAS, creating a record of how much light pollution affects the Geneva Lake area.


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