Scitech | Let there be (less) light

How light pollution is affecting our cities

What differentiates the star-filled skies of cottage country from the night skies of downtown Montreal, where perhaps even on a clear night one can hope to find five or six stars at best? Why do we have to escape the confines of the city to witness such awe-inspiring sights as Orion’s Belt and the Milky Way?

It seems that we have made it our mission to undo all that existed in our natural way of life. We are no longer confined to being active during the day and resting at night: business as usual can continue for 24 hours. Night lighting has become a permanent feature of our lives, and this modification of the natural light environment has led to light pollution and the many unexpected complications, including sky glow, glare, urbanization of nocturnal landscapes, and the uncoupling of ecosystems.

Sky glow is the most obvious and remarkable form of light pollution, disrupting the work of astronomers, depriving city dwellers of the night sky’s delights, and reducing our night vision – which means that almost 97 per cent of all stars are not visible from major cities in the world.

Light pollution also has devastating effects on the environment, disrupting biological rhythms by resetting the internal clocks of animals and plants. Many nocturnal animals attempt to escape light at night, and often the illumination of nocturnal environments will lead such organisms to retreat from otherwise suitable habitats. Millions of birds are killed each year as artificial lighting disorients their migratory flights and leads them to collide with large structures like bridges and skyscrapers. And although it may seem like an advantage, the billions of insects killed by their deadly attraction to illumination disrupt food chains from the bottom up.

In the late 1970s, astronomers began understanding the alarming effects of the pervasive use of artificial lighting, which served as catalyst for the Dark Sky Movement. In 1988, the movement gathered momentum with the establishment of the International Dark Sky Association, an American not-for-profit organization whose mission statement is “to preserve and protect the nighttime’s environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting.”
As Johanna Duffek, outreach and education manager of the International Dark Sky Association, explained to The Daily, public awareness has grown immensely over the past decades with regard to light pollution. However, many seem to still be confused about its exact effects and solutions. “Many people think a dark sky friendly lighting ordinance is going to require them to turn off lights or remove them,” said Duffek. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Our position has always been: use the light when you need, for as long as you need, and only use enough to complete the task.”

Similar developments have been taking place in Quebec, which has been criticized for being one of the most light polluted regions in the world. The largest astronomical observatory in eastern North America, the Mont Megantic Observatory near Sherbrooke was opened in 1978 in an effort to promote research in astronomy and public awareness. Covering 5,500 square kilometres, the observatory’s dark sky preserve curbs next to all light pollution on its land, providing one of the few places where the full potential of the night sky can be seen.

Many political groups have taken on the challenge of reducing light pollution, including Richard Bergeron’s Projet Montréal, a municipal political party created by environmental activists in 2004. As stated in their goals on the party’s website, the group is aiming to “develop and implement a policy to reduce unnecessary lighting and require that all downtown buildings turn off lights in empty rooms.”

However, the motives behind these efforts should be questioned. Light pollution has given legitimacy to groups whose real interests could arguably lie in the gentrification of city boroughs by allowing them to take an “environmental” position. Jacques Seguin, one of the co-owners of the new Nouveau Palais – a restaurant in Mile End – explained that as a result of a bylaw imposed to reduce light pollution, the restaurant has had trouble keeping their famous neon sign. When asked about the motivation behind this bylaw, Seguin stated “I’m not sure of the spirit of this law, but we feel this sign has historical significance.” It seems large discrepancies exist between the imposition of such laws and the spread of awareness with regard to what they actually stand for. As Frederic Fabry, professor at the McGill School of Environment said in an email to The Daily, “almost all discussions of light pollution that I have heard of in the public sphere related to the Mont Megantic Observatory and not about other issues (energy waste, pollution, et cetera). I do not believe people or decision makers make a link between light pollution and environmental pollution.”

It is undoubtedly necessary to spread awareness on the issue of light pollution before resorting to the hard hand of the law. Only by spreading knowledge, through initiatives like the Dark Sky Movement and the Mont Megantic Observatory, can we hope to see any legitimacy placed behind such environmental laws. Regardless of motivation, the message remains the same: it is only in striving for darkness that we can hope to see a brighter future.


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