Blue Ridge Naturalist: Dark Skies

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Lights burning in broad daylight waste not only natural resources and your money, but also add pollution to the atmosphere that contributes to global warming. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

I started my journey to Charlottesville when I was seven. Living in a neighborhood not yet blighted by street lamps, I could spot on clear nights the steady glow of the nearby planets of the Solar System, as well as the moon that had not yet been visited by man. I was able to peer into deep space, observing in the black sky the dense band of stars making up the disk of our own galaxy (the Milky Way), as well as scintillating distant galaxies and nearby stars. These celestial objects so thoroughly enthralled me that I decided at this young age to become an astronomer.

About eighteen years later, as I was working towards my physics degree, I learned of the Summer Student Research Program offered by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville. Although there were very few assistantships available, I applied. Happily, I was chosen to come here to do research with an astronomer that summer, and the rest—as they say—is history!

The ability to view the night sky when I was very young determined my direction in life. Today the night sky is, for most children, an exercise in futility. They may know it’s out there somewhere, but they are highly unlikely to see much of it from their own back yards, as I was able to do. For them, the night sky exists only in theory.

I moved permanently to the Charlottes-ville area 40 years ago, and over that time I’ve witnessed the decline in one’s ability to view the night sky, thanks to more and more lights sending their rays skyward. From my home in a rural area northwest of Crozet, I see—especially on cloudy nights—a tremendous glow when I look east towards Charlottesville. To the northwest, Harrisonburg can now be located by its glow on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the same is true of Waynesboro to the southwest.

The intensity of lights from highly developed areas not only obliterates the sky; it has also made the night itself less dark. I can look out the window, even on moonless nights, and see my husband’s truck in the driveway, as well as the driveway itself! Does any of this matter? Yes, it does, and not only to astronomers trying to view the universe. Night-flying migrating birds need to see the stars in order to navigate to their destinations.

We’ve evolved within a 24-hour rhythm of light and darkness. Mess up that rhythm, and you mess up your bodily life functions right along with it. It’s the reason we have problems adjusting our sleep/wake cycle to other locations when we travel long distances by plane. 

Animals (and plants) are affected by the number of hours of light they get each day. Birds that should be sleeping (all organisms must rest their bodies) stay awake most of the night if they reside in an area with bright lights. I’d always been perplexed by reports of mockingbirds and robins singing all night in developed areas, as this situation didn’t make sense and didn’t agree with my decades of relatively quiet, dark country nights.

Then, one evening many years ago, we visited my father-in-law who had taken ill and was at Augusta Medical Center in Fishersville. As we walked towards the entrance, we had the very strange experience of hearing birds chattering away in the tress that lined the brightly lit sidewalk!

Such birds probably have shortened life spans, just as humans do who spend their lives shortchanged of the requisite number of hours of rest. For night-flying insects, the problem is more severe, with death coming much sooner because of the lights that attract them.

I’ve been writing for years about insects disappearing, and now scientists have found this to be true around the world. They may feel unsure of the cause, but there is no doubt in my mind that the biggest factor is manmade lighting. [See a map of city night lights of the United States, taken from space, at www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2712986388]

Abundant night lighting is ubiquitous in the developed world and people don’t think about its consequences, nor do they often care even when they are told how deadly it is to insects—the animals that play the biggest roles in making the Earth habitable for us. The worst aspect of this situation is that so much lighting is excessive and unnecessary.

Parking lots often have at least twice as many light poles than needed for safety. Immensely bright lights at gas stations, and outside restaurants and other businesses, add to the killing glow. Small towns emulate the bigger ones; drive through Crozet at night and the main thoroughfare is bright as day.

And then there are the lights left on all night around homes, and sometimes even barns! Leaving a light on at home occasionally because someone will be arriving after dark makes sense, but often, lights simply burn all night long, night after night.

Insect and spider numbers have dropped precipitously over the past few years. The rainy 2018 season didn’t help. Many insects died and those that didn’t had trouble reproducing.

Consequently, many species of birds last year were not able to nest as many times as usual, and some nestlings died due to a lack of protein and fat they can get only from arthropods. If birds are struggling, you can bet that lizards and salamanders are struggling, along with the animals dependent upon all of these creatures for sustenance.

We cannot afford to treat the dearth of insects and other wildlife the way we have climate change—by not acknowledging it until we face serious crises, such as food shortages. We must start shutting the lights off now.

The obscuration of the night sky by light pollution makes folks lose their perspective, distorting their sense of place in the universe. Perhaps that explains the focus nowadays on everything human.

My book, The Nature-friendly Garden, explained the necessity and benefits of having wildlife in our gardens. The same goes for this country and the entire Earth, the most significant object in the whole universe—that is, until enough wildlife disappears. Because then, we, too, disappear. 

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