This year’s Star Count is being held next month. From Saturday, February 6, to Sunday, February 14, CPRE, the countryside charity, is asking citizen scientists – that’s all of us! – to choose a clear night, look to the skies and see how many stars we can spot within Orion. If you don’t know where Orion is, we will be offering a guiding hand between now and Star Count. We’ll keep you posted! It’s a fantastic, easy piece of stargazing for children and adults alike – no telescopes are required – and can be done safely from your garden, balcony or bedroom window. We are holding this event as star-filled skies provide one of the most magical sights our natural world has to offer. We want to reconnect people across the country with the wonder of a truly dark sky. CPRE research shows light pollution is leaving fewer stars than ever visible to the naked eye – and we need your help to track how light levels are changing. We will keep you informed throughout, but the first thing we’d like you to do is register your interest in Star Count 2021. You can do that here We’ll catch up soon. Until then, keep safe. To read about last year’s Star Count, click here
Light pollution is an acknowledged blight on both the rural and the urban environment, but perhaps less known is its detrimental effect on wildlife and even our own health. Vicky Ellis investigates.
We humans seem preconditioned to take rather than give back – perhaps nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to nature and our dark skies. Dark skies are more than just pretty stars in the sky or moonlit trees on a clear night. As romantic as that sounds, the darkness we inexplicably try so hard to flood out is vital for not just our health and well-being but also the health and well-being of flora and fauna. As more and more housing is built, along with ancillary infrastructure, the more street lighting, outside lighting, security lighting and garden lighting goes up, with little or no regard for the damage caused to our ecosystems that rely on darkness for their very survival. Why are dark nights so fundamental? This article hopefully goes some way to explaining how important dark nights are and why they should be protected, embraced and treasured. The night sky with its wondrous stars and moon are part of our heritage. It belongs to no one and everyone at the same time. There is not one person alive who has right over our night sky and not one person who has the right to rob the joys of the night sky from anyone else. It should be our fundamental right to see, enjoy and benefit from the darkness and the tranquillity it generates.
Over billions of years, life on Earth has evolved to rely on the rhythmic cycle of night and day to govern our physiology. It’s part of nature’s DNA and therefore part of our DNA. Science is now uncovering the deadly effect light pollution has on our flora and fauna, from birds, amphibians, mammals, insects and plants to our own health and well-being. The process behind these circadian rhythms is initiated by photons signalling via the retina a tiny part of the brain responsible for the secretion of melatonin. Melatonin begins to increase at dusk and peaks around midnight, relinquishing a cascade of chemical signals responsible for the regulation of sleep and wake cycles, body temperature, metabolism and appetite. Leptin is one of these hormones. Sometimes referred to as the ‘hunger hormone’, it is released primarily from fat cells and ironically contributes to the regulation of body weight, curbing appetite while we sleep. According to epidemiologist Dr Richard Stevens from the University of Connecticut, who has studied links between ALAN (artificial light at night) and human health, one theory as to why it’s important our appetite is suppressed during the night is because ‘back in the day’ foraging for food when it’s dark would have been a high-risk strategy resulting in the likelihood of us becoming food. All ALAN, be it computer screens, streetlights shining through windows or indoor and outside lights, interfere with circadian rhythms to varying degrees by interrupting regulation of melatonin. Obesity is one consequence among many and is linked to low levels of leptin. Other studies have found a strong correlation between low melatonin levels and disrupted circadian cycles with heart disease, diabetes, depression and cancer – particularly breast cancer. Further studies implicate ALAN as having a negative psychological impact on health. On the other hand, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist from the University of California, claims that observing stars rotating gently above our heads creates a feeling of awe and amazement that can elicit a sense of positivity.
Nocturnal animals, which sleep during the day and come out at night, have their natural rhythm drastically disrupted when their night-time environment is destroyed by ALAN. Predators use light to hunt, while prey species utilise darkness to stay safe and other fauna use night-time features to navigate. When affecting ecology, ALAN is sometimes referred to as ‘ecological light pollution’ and can affect nature down to the tiniest organism. Spiders, for instance, will seek out light sources to spin their webs as insects are attracted to the light, so it makes sense to exploit this to their advantage. The same can be said of bats feeding on moths. However, this disruption in predator-prey balance can result in crashes in prey populations, as we are witnessing now with insects, especially flying insects. While it is unlikely that ALAN is the sole driver of our insect population crash, it is a contributing factor. ALAN is just one more avoidable man-made negative that affects nature’s natural balance. Nocturnal insects such as moths navigate at night. ALAN can severely inhibit this ability to navigate, interfering with reproductive success. Artificial light sends moths into a frenzy around the light source, which often results in them either being picked off by predators or dying from exhaustion. Flowers that bloom at night rely on moths for pollination. If there is no other night-time pollinator not affected by light pollution, the plant will be unable to reproduce, drastically altering the local ecosystem with sometimes disastrous consequences. Many will have heard birds singing at night in an illuminated tree, something that makes us feel uncomfortable because we know it is not right. Other fauna negatively affected include frogs that use a light-dependent compass to find their way at night, using this light to find their way to breeding ponds. Studies have shown ALAN to also cause developmental deformities such as retinal damage, impeded juvenile development, premature metamorphosis, reduced sperm production and genetic mutation. Frogs croak at night under cover of darkness during their mating season. ALAN can disrupt this, interfering in successful reproduction and negatively affecting population numbers. Light and glare from ALAN can have a devastating effect on wetlands, home to amphibians such as frogs and toads and migratory birds. Migratory birds often navigate at night using the moon and stars. ALAN can trick these birds into deviating from their migratory routes, sometimes with fatal consequences. Irresponsibly-lit tall buildings in cities around the world draw these doomed birds, which then collide with them. Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) in America states that brightly-lit tower blocks in Toronto could be responsible for tens of thousands of bird fatalities a year. The volume of flora and fauna negatively affected by ALAN is so far-reaching that it would be impossible to list each species, but they range across the spectrum to include such animals as turtle hatchlings, some of which turn the wrong way at night. Instead of heading for the moonlit ocean, tragically they are drawn to the bright lights of towns and roads.
Crime and safety
We often hear people panic at the mere suggestion streetlights are turned off after hours, citing safety as a primary reason. Others are that streetlights make people ‘feel’ safer and that the accident rate might increase ‘tenfold’ if street lighting is removed, either in towns or on dual carriageways, and crime rates will soar. It may come as a surprise, but these perceptions are not backed by science or fact, and in some cases, it is quite the opposite: street lighting can do more harm than good when it comes to crime and safety. Many people reside in the countryside with no street lighting for miles and manage to survive quite adequately, avoiding being run over, burgled or attacked, while cars do not suddenly lose control when no streetlight is on. A number of studies make the same findings, but two major papers draw similar conclusions: The first study found, in summary, the following results:
Switch-off (permanently turning off streetlights) was not associated with an increase in night-time traffic collisions or crime
Part-night lighting (for example streetlights switched off between midnight and 6am) was not associated with an increase in night-time traffic collisions or crime
Replacing conventional yellow lighting with white light was not associated with an increase in night-time traffic collisions and was associated with a reduction in crime, though estimates were imprecise
Dimming of conventional yellow light or white light was not associated with an increase in night-time traffic collisions and was associated with a reduction in crime, though estimates were imprecise
It concluded that turning off streetlights resulted in “little evidence of harmful effects… on road collisions or crime in England and Wales” and “found no evidence for an increase in collisions where street lighting was reduced at night”. The second study of reviewed literature concluded: “In the light of these findings it can be considered highly unlikely that the Cambridgeshire part-night lighting scheme will cause an increase in crime.” What are the figures for rural crime, where few or no streetlights occur, as opposed to towns, often heavily peppered with streetlights? According to statistics from the Office for National Statistics 2018-19 crime and justice bulletin, the rate of violence against any one individual was 20.2 per 1,000 population in mainly rural areas compared with 29.5 per 1,000 population in mainly urban areas. For sexual offences the rural figure was 2.2 per 1,000 against 2.8 per 1,000 urban areas and the rate for recorded crime was also lower in rural areas than urban areas, for example robbery, domestic burglary and vehicle offences. The figures here were 4.3 per 1,000 population (rural) versus 9.5 per 1,000 in urban areas. There is of course more reason for these figures than just a lack of streetlighting in rural areas, but these figures may tell us that streetlighting does not seem to have any influence on keeping people safe at night.
It has been found that ALAN can increase atmospheric pollution negatively, affecting the air we breathe. A recent study presented by Harald Stark from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that ALAN destroyed nitrate radicals and in so doing prevented the natural night-time reduction of atmospheric smog produced by fumes generated from cars and factories. Every night the nitrate radical NO3, which is destroyed by sunlight, builds up during the night, neutralising some of the nitrogen oxides (NOx), which pollute the air during daylight hours, leading to increased levels of ozone (O3), which can cause breathing difficulties. Further research, cited by Kelly Beatty in her article Night Lights Worsen Smog, claims to show that this clean-up is inhibited due to nitrate radicals being destroyed by vertical night-time light-glow spillage emanating from outside lighting on the ground. Astronomers who study the night sky are particularly sensitive to even the lowest levels of light pollution. Indeed, skyglow can destroy their chances of studying the night sky completely.
How can we reduce the impact of ALAN?
Of course, the one preferred default is no light at all. However, the type of bulb you use can have a huge impact on how many insects are attracted, especially winged insects. It is recommended that we use warm-coloured LED bulbs for outside lighting and avoid white LED sources. A study by Michael Justin from the University of North Carolina found incandescent light bulbs were attracted the highest number of insects, followed by CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps), halogen globes and cool-coloured (such as blue) LEDs. The second-best light was the ‘bug light’ and surprisingly the winner, with the fewest insects attracted, was the warm LED bulb. We can use light fittings that angle the light down where it is needed and do not allow the light to flood out across fields and into the night sky. As pretty as that lantern is, it’s not night-friendly. Further, lighting need be kept on only when necessary – we can turn it off once in bed or when our visitors have left. These are only small gestures in the great scheme of things, but if everyone did this it would collectively make a huge difference. Who knows, we might even get back our night sky and nature can begin to slowly mend.
In February, more than 2,400 people across the country took part in a star-counting survey run by CPRE, the countryside charity. By counting the number of stars visible in the constellation of Orion, it helps build up a picture of the nation’s views of the night sky. CPRE believes that a star-filled night sky is one of the most magical sights of the countryside. And throughout the coronavirus lockdown, gazing up at the stars will have brought comfort to many. Yet light pollution can spread from towns and cities into the countryside, denying many people the chance to experience the wonder and tranquillity of seeing a sky full of stars. The results of this citizen science survey, carried out annually, suggest that across the UK 61 per cent of people are in areas with severe light pollution, counting fewer than 10 stars. This is a rise of 4 per cent from last year, when 57 per cent of people taking part were in these areas. Crispin Truman, CPRE chief executive, said: “Gazing up at the heavens can inspire and help lift our spirits, especially when many of us are forced to do so from within our homes at the moment. It is a shame that few of us can see the starry skies in all their glory, without the intrusion of light pollution.” There was some good news at the other end of the scale, with 3 per cent of people counting more than 30 stars within Orion, meaning they were in areas with truly dark skies. That’s a rise from 2 per cent in 2019. Families who took part and were able to see plenty of stars on the night of their count reported how much they loved the experience. In addition, 99 per cent of star-counters asked said they believed that every child should be able to experience the wonder of a star-filled night sky. Bob Mizon from the British Astronomical Association’s Commission for Dark Skies (CfDS) said: “It’s wonderful to hear about families having fun doing the Star Count. Children should be able to see the Milky Way, their own galaxy, by looking up at the sky, not looking online!” CPRE and CfDS believe that councils have the power to give people better views of the night sky. And, when asked, 82 per cent of star-counters responding to a survey said their local council should do more to tackle light pollution. Mr Truman added: “We’d like to see councils adopting better policies in local plans to tackle light pollution and protect and enhance our darkest skies, where people can still experience the wonder of a star-filled night sky. “There are straightforward steps councils can take, in consultation with local people, that don’t just reduce light pollution but save energy and money, too.’
See the map with the results of CPRE’s Star Count 2020 here
This week, CPRE, the countryside charity, is inviting everyone to join in with Star Count 2020, a fun and easy way to enjoy the wonders of the universe. By simply counting the number of stars they can see in the Orion constellation up until Friday, February 28, those taking part will help map the best and worst places to see the awesome sight of a star-filled night sky. Throughout history, people have gazed up at the magical starry night sky in wonder and used the cosmos to navigate. Looking at the stars we get a feeling of tranquillity rarely experienced in today’s frantic lives. Seeing dark skies full of stars is something we associate with the countryside, and part of reconnecting with the natural world. However, places to view these spellbinding sights are becoming harder to find, even in the countryside. Last year’s Star Count results showed that light pollution, often caused by the glow and glare from street and outdoor household and sports lighting, is making beautiful starry skies a rare sight for many of us. Just 2 per cent of people who took part in Star Count 2019 told us they were viewing a truly dark sky. Emma Marrington, CPRE’s starry skies expert, said: “A starry night sky is one of the most magical sights the countryside can offer, connecting people to such an important part of our natural heritage. But many people don’t get to experience this beauty due to light pollution. We want to get people out counting the stars and helping to save them now and for future generations to enjoy!” As well as preventing us from seeing the stars and wonders of our Milky Way galaxy, the Northern Lights and meteors (shooting stars), light pollution has serious impacts. It disrupts the natural behaviour of wildlife and can be harmful for our health. It’s also a waste of energy at a time when many people are trying to live more sustainably. Using the results from the annual Star Count, CPRE will lobby the government and local authorities to tackle light pollution and also highlight which ‘dark sky’ areas need to be protected and enhanced by strong policies. CPRE’s Star Count is supported by the British Astronomical Association’s Commission for Dark Skies (CfDS). Expert astronomer Bob Mizon from the CfDS said: “As well as being a wonderful opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy the night sky, Star Count is starting to give us some really useful information. We’re hoping many more people will join in this year and give us the best map ever.” To take part, star counters are asked to choose a clear night this week. Without using a telescope of binoculars, people can then count the stars within the rectangle shape formed by Orion, except the four stars on the outer corners, then submit their results at cpre.org.uk/starcount
A record 2,300 people took part in this year’s Star Count. The count, held over the first three weeks of February, revealed that just 2% of participants experienced the wonders of a truly dark sky full of stars, due to the impact of light pollution caused by street lighting and other artificial lights, even in the countryside. CPRE is calling for action to tackle light pollution and enable more people to enjoy the beauty of a starry sky. The cosmic census, which was supported by the British Astronomical Association, aimed to promote dark skies and engage people in the wonders of stargazing. Star-spotters submitted the number of stars they could see within the constellation of Orion and the results used to create an interactive map displaying people’s view of the night sky. But it also demonstrated the impact that light pollution is having on people’s view of the stars. Well over half of all participants (57%) failed to see more than 10 stars, meaning they are severely impacted by light pollution. In contrast, only 9% of people experienced ‘dark skies’, counting between 21 and 30 stars, while just 2% experienced ‘truly dark skies’ and were able to count more than 30 stars – half the proportion of people able to do so during the previous Star Count, in 2014. CPRE suggests the results show we can do more to combat light pollution. Given its detrimental impact – not just on people’s view of the night sky but also the behaviour of nature and wildlife, as well as human health – we are urging the government, local councils and general public to do more to limit the impact of artificial light from streets and buildings. Emma Marrington, dark skies campaigner at CPRE, said: “We’re hugely grateful to the many people who took the time to get out and take part in our Star Count. But it’s deeply disappointing that the vast majority were unable to experience the natural wonder of a truly dark sky, blanketed with stars. Without intervention, our night sky will continue to be lost under a veil of artificial light, to the detriment of our own health, and the health of the natural world. “The Star Count results show just how far-reaching the glow from streetlights and buildings can be seen. Light doesn’t respect boundaries, and careless use can see it spread for miles from towns, cities, businesses and motorways, resulting in the loss of one of the countryside’s most magical sights – a dark, starry night sky. “By using well-designed lighting only when and where it is needed, investing in street light dimming schemes and considering part-night lighting – which should of course be done in consultation with the local community and police – councils have a fantastic opportunity to limit the damage caused by light pollution, reduce carbon emissions and save money.”
See the interactive map showing people’s view of the night sky here
You can play your part in monitoring light pollution
This year’s Star Count (see here) goes live tomorrow (Saturday, February 2).
Organised by CPRE, it gives you the chance to become ‘citizen scientists’ by taking part in a cosmic census helping to map our dark skies.
The nationwide Star Count, supported by the British Astronomical Association, runs for the first three weeks of February (until Saturday, February 23). Wherever you are, you’re being asked to count the number of stars you can see with the naked eye within the constellation of Orion.
As well as promoting dark skies and engaging people in the wonders of stargazing, CPRE aims to highlight the blight that light pollution is causing our dark skies and its impact on people and nature.
Not only does light pollution prevent people from enjoying the beauty of a starry sky, it can disrupt wildlife behaviour and affect people’s sleeping patterns, impacting on physical and mental health and well-being.
Emma Marrington, dark skies campaigner at CPRE, said: “A dark sky filled with stars is one of the most magical sights our countryside has to offer and for thousands of years our night sky has been a source of information, fascination and inspiration.
“Increasingly, however, too many people are denied the opportunity to experience this truly natural wonder.
“We want as many people as possible, from right across the country, to get out and get involved with Star Count 2019.
“How many stars you will see ultimately depends upon the level of light pollution in your area, but by counting stars and helping us to map our dark skies, together we can fight back against light pollution and reclaim the night sky.”
Bob Mizon, UK coordinator of the British Astronomical Association Commission for Dark Skies, added: “Star counts are not only fun things to do in themselves but also help to form the national picture of the changing state of our night skies.
“As lighting in the UK undergoes the sweeping change to LEDs, it is really important that we know whether or not they are helping to counter the light pollution that has veiled the starry skies for most Britons for the last few decades.”
CPRE will use the results from Star Count 2019 to create a new map showing how light pollution is affecting the nation’s views of the night sky.
Our Night Blight maps, based on satellite data, showed that just 22 per cent of England is untouched by light pollution and that more than half of our darkest skies are over National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Through the Star Count, we will be able to provide more detailed and up-to-date information on the impact light pollution is having on people’s experience of dark skies.
With this information, CPRE will work with local and national government to ensure that appropriate lighting is used only where it’s needed – helping to reduce carbon emissions, save money and protect and enhance our dark skies.
To find out how to take part in Star Count 2019, see here
To see where your nearest dark skies are, see our NightBlight maps here
Light pollution from Thanet Earth… believe it or not, it’s even worse than this now (pic Craig Solly)
Sometimes television or film shows us night skies that are quite simply jaw-dropping. They portray millions of stars, together forming a spectacle that in places turns an otherwise black sky white.
Others might be more fortunate enough to take holidays in places that allow them to be dazzled directly in person.
One thing is certain, though, and that is that such experiences cannot be enjoyed to such a degree in our corner of the world. Partly this is down to geography, but of course the main culprit denying us views of the stars is light pollution.
And light pollution doesn’t get much worse than in east Kent, where the glasshouse complex of Thanet Earth has been recorded as the second-worst offender in the country, only the Tata Steel plant in Rotherham emitting more nocturnal light.
With the expansion of Thanet Earth, the problem has of course worsened, so by now it could potentially be the worst light polluter in the land.
Either way, the extraordinary orange glow over the site can be seen from miles around, most strikingly when there is low cloud. At times, the sky appears to be on fire… this is light pollution on an epic scale.
More generally, CPRE is next month (February) highlighting the issue nationally by bringing back the Star Count.
We are all being asked to count the number of stars we can see with the naked eye within the constellation of Orion, which is only visible in winter.
The national Star Count will take place during the darkest skies from Saturday, February 2, to Saturday, February 23, giving families the chance to join in during half-term, although the darkest skies are predicted for February 2-9. Supported by the British Astronomical Association, the results from Star Count 2019 will help CPRE create a new map showing how light pollution affects the nation’s views of the night sky and raise awareness of light pollution.
This year’s count will be a small trial event, with a view to expanding it into a larger engagement piece next year. You can find out how to take part at www.cpre.org.uk/starcount
Please do join us and encourage your friends and family to do the same – we all love the stars.
To see where your nearest dark skies are, see our NightBlight maps here
The new edition of Kent Voice is packed with articles and updates on our campaigns, including our recent victory at the Court of Appeal with the quashing of planning permission for 600 homes in the AONB at Farthingloe.
There are lots of interesting articles ranging from the difficulties in getting rural affordable homes built, keeping garden chickens, light pollution and the heritage of hops and orchards in Kent. plus we are encouraging people to try to recruit more members so have included a membership form and also an article on volunteering with us – do take a look.
The most detailed ever satellite maps of England’s light pollution and dark skies, released today (13th June) by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), have shown that Thanet Earth is the second worst light polluter in the country, only second to Tata Steel in Rotherham. .
Night sky over Thanet, photo by Kimberley Eve
Overall, Kent is the 29th darkest county of 41. The maps, produced using satellite images captured at 1.30 am throughout September 2015, show that within Kent, Ashford has the darkest skies, 68th of 326 districts. Ashford Borough Council adopted a specific Dark Skies Policy in 2014 to raise awareness about ways we can minimise light pollution and to raise the profile of dark skies as an environmental asset we are increasingly at threat of losing. 
Dartford has Kent’s lightest skies, 260th of the 326 districts, of course this area has major transport networks, including the Dartford Crossing.
Thanet is 241st in the rankings, with 34% of its skies in the lightest categories. Thanet Earth pledged to improve its greenhouse blinds in 2013, yet the light emitted is still severe.   Its maximum brightness value is 584.98nanowatts/cm2*sr, brighter than anywhere else in the South East, including London.
Thanet Earth, photos by Craig Solly
The research comes at a time of increasing awareness of the harmful effects light pollution can have on the health of people and wildlife. That these skies were monitored at 1.30am illustrates just how long into the night England’s lighting spills.
The new maps were produced by Land Use Consultants from data gathered by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in America. The NOAA satellite captured visible and infrared imagery to determine the levels of light spilling up into British skies. CPRE is sending lesson plans to primary schools in order to promote the enjoyment of dark skies.
We are calling on the county’s local authorities to use these maps to identify areas with severe light pollution and target action to reduce it, as well as identifying existing dark skies that need protecting.
Stars by Tone Netone
Starry night by Ethan Sztular
CPRE Kent recommends that:
Local authorities follow Ashford’s lead and develop policies to reduce light pollution in their emerging local plans.
The councils use CPRE’s maps to inform decisions on local planning applications and identify individual facilities that should be asked to dim or switch off unnecessary lights.
Local businesses review their current lighting and future development plans to save money by dimming or switching off light to reduce pollution as well as meet their promises over reducing existing pollution (e.g. Thanet Earth).
Hilary Newport, director of CPRE Kent said: “Our view of the stars is obscured by artificial light. Many children may not have seen the Milky Way, our own galaxy, due to the veil of light that spreads across their night skies. It is known that dark skies are beneficial to our wellbeing. Light pollution can disturb our sleep, prevent our enjoyment of the countryside and affect wildlife, by interrupting natural rhythms including migration, reproduction and feeding patterns.
“Councils can reduce light levels through better planning, and with investment in the right street lighting that is used only where and when it is needed.
“Our Night Blight maps also show where people can expect to find a truly dark, starry sky and we hope they will go out and enjoy the wonder of the stars.”
Summary of Kent districts (this information and more is available via the maps):
Ranking out of 329
% in three darkest sky categories, less than 1 NanoWatts / cm2 / sr