Dark Skies Revisited

One of the last remaining areas of Southern Ontario to be free of light pollution is the Saugeen Peninsula. The 2011 Sources of Knowledge Forum, Dark Skies, Bright Minds focussed on the importance of the community preserving this feature.

The plenary sessions offered presentations and panel discussions on a wide range of dark sky related topics, including the ecological impacts of light pollution. Several presenters showed how light pollution has serious impacts on birds, bats, fish and many other species.

In August, 2004 the Council proclaimed that the Municipality should be a Dark Sky Community. The Council’s intention was to preserve and protect the night time environment and the dark sky by encouraging the use of appropriate outdoor lighting, raising awareness of the problems of light pollution and to educate residents and visitors about the values of quality outdoor lighting.

Later, the Biosphere Association established the Bayside Astronomy Project in Lions Head. This very successful venture (16,000 people have participated in the program) has run for several years supported by an annual $2000 annual grant from the Council. This year, as the program continues to grow in popularity and now requires an additional student assistant, the Council, in its unfathomable wisdom, has reduced the grant to $1500.

One of the presenters at the SOKF, Terence Dickinson, the Editor of Sky News Magazine has seen night time lighting expand much faster than has the population. By one estimate, it has quadrupled in intensity every decade since 1960, meaning that the global night lighting illumination is 1000 times brighter now than it was 50 years ago. According to a Toronto Star article in 2017, satellite observations during five Octobers show Earth’s artificially lit outdoor area grew by 2 per cent a year from 2012 to 2016. Much of it is waste lighting, flooding uselessly upward and destroying our heritage of nature’s star-filled night.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory estimates that “poorly aimed and unshielded” outdoor lights waste more than 17 billion kilowatt-hours of energy each year in the U.S.  The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 13 percent of home electricity usage goes toward outdoor lighting. More than one-third of that light is lost to skyglow — the artificial brightness of the night sky — resulting in about $3 billion wasted per year.

Light at night throws off the biological clocks of nocturnal animals and interferes with their migration patterns. Birds can also become disoriented by lights and may collide with brightly lit towers and buildings.

Less than 100 years ago, everyone could look up and see a spectacular starry night sky. Now, millions of children across the globe cannot experience the Milky Way where they live. In urban centres, only a few hundred of the brightest stars are visible and the Milky Way has disappeared.

As pointed out by one presenter, Robert Dick of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada: Based on discussions with municipal officials in the 1990s, the chief arguments for the increase of urban outdoor lighting were the perceived need for more light at night to reduce crime and that “everyone” wants more light at night. Suggestions on how to reduce light pollution were dismissed because of the cost of shielded fixtures and the apparent lack of public concern over glare and light trespass.

According to the 2016, World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness 80 per cent of the world’s population lives under skyglow. In the United States and Europe 99 per cent of the public cannot experience a natural night. The physicist Lawrence Krauss recalled that when showing a slide of the Milky Way to his university class in Cleveland he felt bound to point out to the students that what they were looking at were stars.

For even the mildly curious, the magic of the night sky cannot be overstated. When we look up on a clear night we are observing an environment that is unimaginably cold (at close to absolute zero) sprinkled with objects that are at the extremes of hotness. In spite of its apparently slow moving or static state, all of the stars we see are moving at hundreds of thousands of kilometres per second – a perfect demonstration of the Theory of Relativity.

Observing the night sky has enabled humanity to confront the most challenging of life’s conundrums, that the earth is not flat, that it is not the centre of the universe, and that we are indeed staggeringly insignificant. We have calculated the age of the universe with precision and we know what happened within the first billionth of a second. We know that the universe almost certainly arose from a quantum mechanical fluctuation and not through divine intervention and we know that we, ourselves, are made from elements that were created in the centre of stars and blown out into space in stellar explosions millions of years ago.

When we look out into space we are looking back into time because the light from the stars has taken millions of years to reach the Earth. But we are also looking at infinity because we know that the universe is expanding endlessly. To deprive our children of the same intellectual joy and wonder that we and our forebears benefited from, merely for the sake of advertising, or because of an irrational fondness for illumination and a fear of the dark, or from a misinformed notion that crime is less likely to occur in the light, is sad indeed.

While, most businesses, churches and individuals have cooperated with the Municipality’s Dark Skies initiative by installing outdoor lighting that shines down rather than skywards, regrettably, there are still a few area businesses and at least one church that still insist on putting their own interests ahead of the fundamental right of all people, especially young people, to experience one of nature’s greatest spectacles.

Local astronomer, Doug Cunningham captured the essence of this spectacle with a quote from Hucklebury Finn: We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.

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