The State We're In
Light pollution erasing views of the stars and planets
By Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director
Have you ever seen the Milky Way? No, not the candy bar – the galaxy we live in!
If not, you’re in good company. Due to light pollution, which is especially widespread in urbanized places like New Jersey, most people can’t step outside and experience the true wonder of the night sky. Glare from artificial lighting is causing a glow in the sky that dims the view of all but the brightest stars and planets.
Since the beginning of human civilization, the magnificent dome of constellations and planets has mesmerized and inspired. But today, 99 percent of Americans live under light polluted skies with limited views of the night sky. Many people will live their entire lives without ever seeing the Milky Way! And, according to a new report in the journal Science, light pollution is doubling every eight years.
Princeton University astrophysicist Gaspar Bakos wants to change that. He is one of a growing number of experts championing simple, commonsense changes to outdoor lighting that can dramatically reduce light pollution.
The scientist’s efforts are the subject of a new mini-documentary, Dark Sacred Night, by New Jersey filmmaker Jared Flesher. Sponsored by Princeton University’s Office of Sustainability, Dark Sacred Night won an award at the Garden State Film Festival and has just been released to the public on YouTube.
“In some areas of the world where it’s still not lost, the Milky Way is so dense and so bright, you can see your own shadow cast on the ground,” says Bakos in the film’s opening scene. “You appreciate that you live in a galaxy – you see the shape of it, you see the dark lanes in it, you see the spiral arms projected in front of each other.”
The Princeton Office of Sustainability has a plaque on a wall: “Our children have a right to see the stars.” Flesher strongly agrees.
“For me, it’s an important message, because I have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old,” he said. “I would like my children to be able to see the stars. When you get to a dark space and really see the stars properly, it’s a pretty amazing human experience.”
The impacts of light pollution go beyond erasing views of the night sky. A growing body of research suggests that the loss of dark skies can impact human health and the rhythms of the natural world.
For nocturnal animals, light pollution can disrupt feeding and mating patterns. It can also have harmful 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 depression, sleep disorders, obesity, and diabetes.
Polluting outdoor lighting also wastes money and energy, and contributes to climate change.
What can be done to restore dark skies and prevent the spread of light pollution? The solutions are relatively simple: make lights dimmer, shield lights so they only shine downward, and use warm-colored light bulbs.
State Senator Andrew Zwicker, whose district includes Princeton, has introduced a bill (S3138) that would require state agencies – including the Department of Transportation, which oversees highway projects – to install only lighting designed to preserve the natural night environment. The bill would apply to new and replacement light fixtures. An identical state Assembly bill, A3080, has been sponsored by Assemblyman Raj Mukherji.
Some municipalities, including Harding Township in Morris County and East Amwell and Tewksbury townships in Hunterdon County, have adopted “dark sky friendly” ordinances regulating lighting in new homes and/or public places.
Raising awareness about light pollution and promoting solutions is the goal of International Dark Sky Week, April 15-22. According to the International Dark Sky Association, here are some actions the public can take:
- Shield outdoor lighting around your home, or at least angle it downward to reduce light trespass beyond your property. Turn on outdoor lights only when and where needed, and use motion detectors and timers.
- Become a “community scientist” and contribute to a global database of light pollution measurements. All it takes is a computer or a smartphone to measure and submit night sky brightness observations. The Science study that discovered increasing light pollution was based on over 50,000 citizen scientist observations of naked-eye star visibility.
- Become a dark sky advocate. Talk to neighbors and community leaders, and explain that poorly shielded fixtures waste energy, produce glare and reduce visibility of the night sky.
- Visit a dark sky location and see for yourself how beautiful a non-polluted night sky can be. Or search online for local astronomy groups that may be offering “star parties” to the public. Bring your kids or your favorite young person!
Although New Jersey is urbanized, it has some great dark sky spots, including the Pine Barrens and parts of the northwestern counties. Even some places close to developed areas, like Island Beach State Park, provide dark night sky viewing opportunities.
Being able to peer into the cosmos with the naked eye and observe all its magnificence and splendor can help us all reflect on this life of ours on this “pale blue dot” called Earth. Future generations will thank us for this important movement to protect our dark night skies.
To learn more about dark skies and ways to protect them, visit the International Dark Sky Association website at https://idsw.darksky.org/.
To view Dark Sacred Night, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FW0WZX75Nmo&ab_channel=OfficeofSustainabilityatPrincetonUniversity.
And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including open spaces that help protect our remaining dark skies – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at email@example.com.
About the Authors
John S. Watson, Jr.
Michele S. Byers
Executive Director, 1999-2021
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