Stargazers eagerly awaiting the celestial display of the Perseids had their experience marred by light pollution seeping into zones where darkness is supposed to be preserved.
Attendees of events organised by the Malta Astronomical Society at Dwejra, in Gozo struggled to watch the yearly meteor shower, known as Dmugħ ta’ San Lawrenz, on August 12 and 13, as campfires and floodlights illuminated the night sky despite the area being designated as a dark sky heritage area. This means that no lighting is allowed in the area unless for maritime or aerial navigation.
However, attendees of the stargazing event told Times of Malta that several lit barbecues, LED lights and campfires were seen dotting the area. Many boathouses also kept their lights on for the night and a kiosk lit the majority of the square, they said.
ERA enforcement officials were called to the site, however, by the time offenders had turned their lights off, some people had already left, disappointed by their inability to enjoy the Perseids.
Kurt Catania, president of the Astronomical Society of Malta, who was among the volunteers at Dwejra, said that, while it was gratifying to see the growing public interest in the phenomenon, especially among young children, it was disheartening to see the absence of enforcement at Dwejra.
“The prevalence of light pollution not only diverts the audience’s attention but also hinders the educational journey of our young learners,” Catania said.
“I earnestly implore the government to take decisive measures, not only to safeguard vital Natura 2000 sites but also to rectify the damage that has accumulated over years of inadequate regulation. This endeavour is indeed attainable, it merely necessitates commitment and goodwill.”
Juvenile prison among culprits
Catania said similar activities at Miġra il-Ferħa were also spoiled by an excess of light, primarily that emitted by the YOURS juvenile correctional facility, which is under State management.
“If the lighting were designed properly, it would not lead to such problems of light pollution.”
Astrophysicist Joseph Caruana, a professor at the Department of Physics and Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy at the University of Malta, said that light pollution is a major problem on the Maltese islands and that a lack of enforcement could lead to disastrous consequences.
“Enforcement should not rely on the public having to report infringements, especially when they are the order of the day. There should be proper monitoring of such a gem as Dwejra, a point that has been made repeatedly.”
The effects of light pollution should be treated as an “insidious pollutant” with adverse effects on ecology and human health that not only affects astronomy, Caruana said.
Among other problems, it disturbs the sleeping pattern and has been linked to numerous health problems, including cancer, diabetes and depression.
Asked if light pollution may have rendered the Perseids less spectacular this year, Caruana said that, although one should generally keep watching into the early hours to increase the chance of seeing a fair number during the peak, light pollution is, most certainly, a major factor.
“Not only does excessive and badly designed artificial lighting lead to skyglow and glare but it also stops one’s vision from adapting to darkness,” he said.
Places that have taken the issue seriously have also seen the emergence of dark sky tourism. We give nature a respite and we enjoy it in a sustainable manner. It really is a win-win scenario- Astrophysicist Joseph Caruana
“Trying to take a long-exposure photograph to capture a shooting star when there is bright artificial lighting directly visible in the field of view is a guarantee that one’s image will simply be a wash of white.”
Caruana said that combating light pollution is a relatively easy fix, with avoiding excessive illumination, employing properly designed fixtures that aim the light strictly towards the ground and avoiding lighting that is rich in blue light by choosing a warmer hue generally solving the issue.
“With some common sense, such sites could be protected for future generations such that they may continue to enjoy our night sky, which is a shared heritage of humanity,” Caruana said.
“Places that have taken the issue seriously have also seen the emergence of dark sky tourism. We give nature a respite and we enjoy it in a sustainable manner. It really is a win-win scenario.”