What is one of the most pervasive types of pollution, yet is one of only a couple types that is completely gone from the environment the moment we stop adding more pollution?
Polluted water stays polluted well past the time the contamination enters it. The same is true for air. Contaminated soil can stay that way for years on end, and various types of litter and other debris can outlive anyone reading this column.
So, what type of pollution disappears immediately after we eliminate the source?
One evening a few years ago the power went out. After stumbling around a bit to find a flashlight, I stepped outside to see if it was just my house or if the whole neighborhood was dark. It turned out everyone’s lights were out, as well as the streetlights. As I turned back to go inside, something above me caught my eye. I looked up and saw a long cloud overhead stretching across the sky. But something was strange about it… Wait! That wasn’t a cloud. It was the Milky Way! Yes, a “cloud,” but made of 400 billion stars.
It was so eye-catching because the instant the power had gone out, the light pollution in the area stopped, leaving the Milky Way without the competition of “sky glow” from light fixtures that shine a portion of their light upward and “light trespass ” where poorly shielded or poorly aimed fixtures shine light where it doesn’t belong.
Light pollution is a serious problem that is increasing at a global average of 2.2% per year. In addition to blotting out our view of the nighttime sky, it threatens wildlife and ecosystems, impacts human health and obviously wastes energy.
Plants and animals (including humans) have evolved to depend on the daily cycle of light and dark in a variety of ways. For example, predators use light to hunt, and prey species use darkness as cover. Light pollution has the potential to tip the balance in entire ecosystems.
New research results are frequently published about the effect of different types of nighttime artificial light on humans, including on our body’s generation of melatonin which has many purposes, including regulating sleep.
The city of Carpinteria recognizes the impacts of poorly-implemented night lighting. The General Plan has provisions to minimize light pollution from new buildings. But there is a lot of room for improvement, and as the General Plan update proceeds, I look forward to even stronger prevention measures being included. But the General Plan only applies to new development, not existing homes and businesses. Those are our responsibility.
A great place to start reducing light pollution is with your own home. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has an excellent online tool (tinyurl.com/darkersky) that helps you evaluate your present lighting and determine how it can be made more night sky and community friendly. This evaluation is built around five lighting principles:
1. Does the light serve a clear and necessary purpose?
2. Does the light fall only where it is needed?
3. Is the amount of light appropriate for the intended task?
4. Is the light connected to active controls?
5. Is the light source warm in color?
The website has brief descriptions and simple graphics explaining each principle. If you want, you can submit your results on that webpage to self-certify your compliance with the principles, and then download a Dark Sky Friendly Home certificate. I tacked up my certificate where I can see it every time I go out the garage side door and thus be reminded to keep the five principles in mind when I make any lighting changes.
We have a lot of traditions about how lighting is used and how it is expected to look. But after looking at lighting thoughtfully, the conclusion is often that many lights are excessively bright, redundant, aimed where they do nothing useful, or are just not the right light for the job. We pay for the electricity to run each light, so why wouldn’t we want to ensure each light is pulling its weight for us?
Later this month, April 22-30, is International Dark Sky Week 2022 (idsw.darksky.org). This annual week-long event aims to raise awareness about the negative impacts of light pollution, the solutions that exist and simultaneously celebrate the night .
I urge you to celebrate Dark Sky Week by making one specific improvement to your home’s exterior lighting to make it more night sky friendly. Then that evening, take a moment to go outside and look up.
Mike Wondolowski is president of the Carpinteria Valley Association (CarpinteriaValleyAssociation.org), a local organization dedicated to maintaining the small beach town nature of our community. In his 30 years of involvement in planning issues, he has witnessed visionary successes, as well as decisions that were later widely regretted. When not stuck indoors, he can often be found enjoying Carpinteria’s treasures including kayaking and snorkeling along the coast, running or hiking on the bluffs or the Franklin Trail, or “vacationing” as a tent camper at the State Beach .