22. Light Pollution
We often hear about light pollution preventing us from seeing the night sky, but it is responsible for so much more, from massive economic costs to catastrophic human health impacts to disrupting mating and migrations of birds, frogs, and insects to causing the deaths of baby sea turtles. Today, we break down why light pollution causes all these issues, and discuss some ideas for how to mitigate them. With special guest Dr. Douglas Arion: Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Donald D. Hedberg Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Carthage College.
I was fortunate enough to attend high school at Phillips Academy, which had an observatory atop the science building with a 16-inch research telescope, and a comprehensive astronomy research program. In my junior and senior year, I took full advantage of the program, and had the opportunity to conduct research on cataclysmic variable stars, exoplanets, and asteroids. I even got to co-author a published paper with some classmates calculating the rotation periods of three asteroids in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter! I actually considered minoring in Astronomy in college at one point.
Working in an observatory a half hour outside of Boston gave me some understanding of the challenges of light pollution. Images often came out fuzzy, and we were limited in what objects we could image by the object’s luminosity and the altitude it would reach—lower altitude objects were less likely to be visible. Over the spring break of my junior year, we did a trip to an observatory in Nantucket, and the difference was stark. The view through that telescope was ten times clearer, and if I remember correctly, I think that was when I saw the Milky Way, just as the moon set and the sky was at its darkest. I’m 90% sure it was on that trip… apparently the specific location was forgettable, but the view was not.
When I had the idea to cover light pollution on The Sweaty Penguin, I was psyched to talk astronomy. But of course, light pollution had way worse impacts than fogging the night sky! Towns were wasting money, people were losing sleep and getting cancer, and animals were dying. I had heard bits and pieces of that before, but never quite put together the severity of the issue. When talking with Dr. Arion—a Physics and Astronomy professor—I was especially struck by how much he was emphasizing these impacts that were completely unrelated to astronomy. Perhaps it’s some selflessness on the parts of the astronomers, but their research seems to be the least of their concerns.
At this point, what concerns me most is lack of awareness. I don’t think there’s been another issue on this podcast that’s so clear cut in terms of the economic benefit of taking action. Unless you’re an electric company, using less light equals more money, plain and simple. As such, I really hope more people and more towns can learn about the dangers of light pollution and find ways to save money and protect health, the environment, and the night sky. And to top it all off, infrastructure through the International Dark Sky Association already exists to do it!
I hope you enjoy this week’s episode, and I hope you can find some ways to make some improvements in your own life. Not only can each one of us help mitigate light pollution, but we can lower our energy bills too! That’s what I call a win-win.