Let there be light…?

Last month we were able to see the Perseids, technically. The Perseids are a meteor shower that occur once a year for almost a month and this year for one weekend they were supposed to be spectacular. Maybe some of you were lucky enough to find yourself in the countryside during this event, but if you were unlucky you were stuck in the city. Which basically means you don’t see any stars.

This is just one of the many problems caused by light pollution. Light pollution refers to any kind of unnatural light that occurs during night time and brightens our night sky. While it is almost impossible to see any stars in the night sky over the city, light pollution affects us in many different ways. It is an environmental harm, but also a threat to our physical and mental health.

Especially in cities light pollution is a very sensitive matter. On the one hand, for us light equals safety. We don’t feel safe walking home alone at night if there is no light at all, which makes absolute sense, because we associate light with good and darkness with evil and the unknown. But whilst street lighting is an important factor when it comes to light pollution other main light polluters are billboards, industrial facilities, skyscrapers and sights, that are set in scene by floodlights as well as sport stadiums. According to measurements by the Wiener Umweltanwaltschaft street lighting is responsible for 1/3 of light pollution in Vienna, while 2/3 are caused by private polluters such as shops and billboards for example. As charming as they may look, we need to have an open discussion about this matter.

On the other hand, light pollution is a serious threat to our eco-system and to ourselves. We have a biological cycle, that dictates us to be awake during the day and to sleep during the night. But we are not the only ones, who have that cycle: animals, birds, insects, reptiles as well as plants and trees live by the day-night rhythm.

Not very delightful facts

But not only does it disturb our sleep cycle, also nocturnal animals live by a day and night cycle. Many birds, insects or amphibians depend on natural light for directions. 2/3 of migrating birds travel during night time and are guided by the moon and the stars. Turtles use moon light to find the sea and often lose orientation trying to travel towards an unnatural light source.

Insects are also drawn to light, so billions of them burn to death while trying to find their way. “Diurnal insects are lured towards the light and die. Even if insects are not the most popular, they play an important part in the materials cycle for example as pollinators or food for other animals such as birds.” says Stefanie Suchy from the Tiroler Umweltanwaltschaft. Plants and trees lose their natural cycle due to unnatural light, which causes them to sometimes not even bloom.

Our world is a delicate eco-system, where every little creature and plant has a role to play. By destroying the natural habitat of those, an entire eco-system can be wiped out, which can cause animals and plants to become extinct. But if dying baby turtles and flowers vanishing from the face of the earth weren’t enough, light pollution is also a serious threat to our health.

Come to the dark side

Human beings also naturally adjust to the day and night cycle. And our physical and mental health depend on this cycle, because we need to sleep in order to stay healthy. But to get that good night of rest, we need one thing: darkness.

Our sleep cycle is influenced by a hormone called Melatonin. Melatonin can solely be produced in darkness. Our sleep cycle is dependent on that hormone. A lack of Melatonin production can lead to sleep deprivation, and increases the risk of winter depression and tumors.  Especially blue light which is often found in little LED lights on electronic devices are bad for our sleep. So as much as we all love to snooze away while watching our favourite TV Shows, this behaviour can make us ill.

So what can be done to reduce light pollution?

ecofriendly alternatives

Alternative street lighting

First of all, and this one is more than obvious: Switch off the lights. Not leaving on any unnecessary sources of light is good for our environment and it also saves us money. Especially outdoor lights can destroy the eco-system around your house. So using timed switches to reduce light pollution or environmental friendly light bulbs, spares the environment and our finances. According to Stefanie Suchy, “these intelligent systems are more costly at first, but in the long run they pay off by increasing our wellbeing and sparing our health and environment.” If you want to opt for the less expensive approach: try to avoid beaming Christmas decorations or leaving lights on at night.

When it comes to street lighting there are eco-friendly options available as shown in the illustration. If you are a business owner: switch off the light during night time. It’s as simple as that.

If you want to get even more involved with helping to reduce light pollution in your area, you can visit hellenot.org and find a list of projects in which you can get actively involved.

And last but not least: if you are reading this article and you’re already in bed and ready to get your well-deserved night of sleep then switch off your laptop after you’ve finished reading this illuminating article and get your Melatonin production working while sleeping peacefully in darkness. Let the little birds wake you and hope they don’t start singing away at 4 a.m. – because they are all confused due to light pollution.


Picture Credit: Merlin Dickie

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About Julia Unteregger

Julia is a writer and a mental health professional. In her free time she likes to hike, even though she fears heights. She also drinks a lot of coffee and plays an excessive amount of solitaire.

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