As hopefully many of you will know, CPRE, the countryside charity, is encouraging as many of us as possible to take part in this year’s Star Count from home. The clock is ticking and this fabulous event runs from tomorrow (Saturday, February 6) to Sunday, February 14. All you have to do is choose a clear night, look skywards and see how many stars we can spot within Orion. And now we can offer you a video showing how to go about it! In truth, it’s not a difficult process anyway, but this is a fun feature and should sort out anything you’re not sure about. To view the video, visit the CPRE Kent Facebook page here Seeing dark skies full of stars is something denied to far too many people. Previous Star Count results have demonstrated that light pollution is making starry skies a rarity in many parts of the country. However, using these results from the annual Star Counts, CPRE lobbies government and local authorities to tackle light pollution and highlight which ‘dark sky’ areas need to be protected and enhanced by strong policies. Star Count is fun and it serves a fabulous purpose in helping protect one of the greatest wonders of our world: a dark sky glittering with stars. Come on, you know you want to!
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.
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
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