Earth is a diurnal planet − a world of day and night. Accordingly, countless species − from the simplest of organisms to the most complex − have evolved in such a manner that they are attuned to this daily cycle of light and dark. From microbes and insects, to animals and humans, entire ecosystems dance to the rhythm of our revolving planet.
As the sun goes down, myriad insects commence their pollinating duties. Migrating birds navigate by the light of the moon and the stars; hatchlings of sea turtles scurry to the sea when they make out the faint glow over the horizon; humans are lulled to sleep when darkness falls and the hormone melatonin is secreted.
Ever since the advent of artificial lighting, these and many other processes have become increasingly disrupted. Migrating birds are disoriented; confused turtles make their way to land and die; nocturnal pollinators are deterred; numerous insects are attracted to bright bulbs and burn; such that light pollution is now seen as one of the contributors to the so-called insect apocalypse.
The effects on humans have also become the subject of intense study. Research links exposure to artificial light at night with sleep disruption, problems of psychological well-being and illnesses, including breast and prostate cancer. Study after study calls for the problem to be taken seriously.
Needless to say, light pollution also feeds the monster that is climate change. The most well-known problem is that it results in a hefty carbon footprint. But there is more to it than meets the eye. During the night, air pollution is broken down via what is known as the nitrate radical. But this radical was also found to be suppressed by artificial light. Put simply, inconsiderate artificial lighting can also impact nature’s ability to clean itself up while we are asleep.
In addition to all the environmental damage and threats to human health, light pollution has also eroded that most primal of human connections: the deeply-rooted sense of awe and wonder that old and young alike experience at the sight of a humbling, beautiful, starry sky.
Locally, our research group has been monitoring the night sky brightness for a number of years. Sadly, the situation is dire. This was amply demonstrated in a peer-reviewed study we published at the beginning of 2020.
It is not a recent problem; successive governments have failed to act, brushing the problem under the carpet. We were, therefore, cautiously optimistic last June to see the announcement of draft guidelines for the reduction of light pollution by the Ministry for the Environment, Climate Change and Planning.
Bar some technical issues, on which we submitted our feedback, this was, in itself, an encouraging development. The problem was being acknowledged and this was very much a step in the right direction.
There was only one glaring issue right from the start: guidelines on their own are next to useless without enforcement. We have repeatedly called for the good work that had been done to be entrenched in policy. Alas, as of writing, months later, the guidelines are still stuck in draft stage. Enforcement − even in those cases where lighting practice is already addressed by existing legal notices − has remained a pipe dream. We have yet to see any tangible results beyond the initial flurry of PR.
Light pollution has eroded that most primal of human connections: the deeply-rooted sense of awe and wonder that old and young alike experience at the sight of a humbling, beautiful, starry sky
In the time since the announcement of the draft guidelines, we have lost count of the number of developments that run counter to them, and the problem has continued to worsen. The culprits are many − from private individuals and church authorities to local councils and the government itself.
Streets are illuminated with no consideration to actual requirements, often resulting in excessive brightness. The fixtures that continue to be installed emit blue-rich light; besides leading to higher skyglow, studies show that the adverse effect of such light on humans is even worse.
To add insult to injury, in some instances, newly-installed harmful lighting (such as six-lamp-bright poles in village cores and up-lighters in rural areas) was publicly described to exhibit correct specifications to curb light pollution!
From public buildings and monuments that are hideously lit all night long, to harsh lighting employed in illuminating sports grounds and billboards (to name but only a few examples), the dazzling cacophony of garish light keeps increasing day by day.
Churches continue to insist on installing additional dome-lighting and up-lighters, lest one be outdone by their neighbour. Meanwhile, when contacted, the curiae on both islands remain conveniently silent and ineffectual. When is the Church going to take responsibility for the damage it is causing in this regard? For when it comes to our collective responsibility to the environment, it is truly a case of preaching one thing and practising the direct opposite.
Parallel to this, Planning Authority officials need to have their own criteria about light pollution (pertaining to such procedures as Development Notification Orders) explicitly pointed out to them. And even so, months after supposedly initiating “investigations”, only inadequate and factually wrong replies are forthcoming, for in the eagerness to proclaim a case to be closed, empirical evidence is ignored. Even when dazzling spotlights are directed upwards, the authority closes both eyes. Well, the light is blinding after all.
There was a time when one might have given the benefit of the doubt and ascribed the problem to lack of awareness and adequate training. But while it is amply clear that local councils and authority officials are still woefully unequipped and lack the technical expertise, the issue runs deeper than this. Proceeding with damaging decisions even when a problem is described, technical details provided, and a contravention highlighted, reveals the problem to be even worse than wilful ignorance. This is wanton destruction.
Mitigating many of the problems impacting our natural environment is not always an easy matter. In the case of light pollution, however, the solutions are simple. One need only follow five basic rules: do not employ artificial lighting unless truly required; do not illuminate more than is needed, either in brightness or frequency; use appropriately-designed lighting fixtures that direct warm light downwards; turn off those lights you do not need all night long; protect rural areas by using motion-activated lights in the vicinity and implementing reflectors instead. When in doubt, seek expert advice.
What is needed above all is a change in mentality. The night is not there to be lit up inconsiderately. Our authorities’ attitude to the problem needs to change fast, their officials ought to be provided with proper training and instruction, and the problem has to be tackled with the urgency it merits. Moreover, all government ministries and authorities have to act cohesively.
Occasionally, one still encounters the ill-informed retort that there are other, more critical forms of pollution. The first answer to this is plain enough: one problem does not exclude the other. Beyond this, however, what needs to be understood is that some problems are dangerous precisely because they are less obvious − and this therefore makes them insidious in nature. Such is the character of light pollution.
Tackling light pollution is not a zero-sum game, whereby a win on one side is matched by an equal loss on the other. There is all to be gained: we will waste less energy, give our ecosystems a respite and help our very own selves. So the question really begs itself: why insist on causing mindless harm?
Joseph Caruana is an astrophysicist at the Department of Physics and Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy. One may keep updated on local matters of light pollution by following the page: www.facebook.com/nightskymalta.
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