Stargazers lobby for lights off at night

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From the Scotsman

A FIFTH of the world’s population can no longer see the Milky Way with the naked eye due to artificial lights blocking out the view of the stars.

This year, which is International Year of Astronomy, a new project is taking place to try to improve the visibility of the stars.

Campaigners at the Dark Skies Awareness project will be lobbying local authorities and members of the public to turn off lights in built-up areas at night.

Malcolm Smith, an astronomer at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, wrote about the importance of the project in the journal Nature.

He said: “Over the past six decades, professional and amateur astronomers have been pioneering efforts to curb light pollution to protect the viability of their observatories.

“During the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, particularly through the Dark Skies Awareness project, astronomers can find allies in a common cause to convince authorities and the public that a dark sky is a valuable resource for everyone.” Mr Tololo explains that turning lights off at night has benefits beyond improving the view of the stars.

“Reducing the number of lights on at night could help conserve energy, protect wildlife and benefit human health,” he said.

“The most persuasive arguments for lighting control are economic ones. Estimates by the International Dark-Sky Association, based on work from satellite images, show that cities needlessly shine billions of pounds worth of light directly into the sky each year.

“As education on these issues improves, some cities are now realising the benefits of controlling such energy waste through better-quality lighting, thereby reducing dangerous glare and confusing lighting clutter.”

He said that although humans are generally comfortable in artificially-lit environments, it can cause confusion for other species.

Migrating birds suffer in particular, he said. “In more and more cities in Canada and the United States, switching off at least some of the light in nearly empty skyscrapers reduces the unnecessary annual slaughter of millions of migrating birds.”

And he argues that losing the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye also has a subtle cultural impact on our society.

“Without a direct view of the stars, mankind is cut off from most of the universe, deprived of any direct sense of its huge scale and our tiny place within it.”

He highlights the fact that research shows light at night triggers signals that cause a reduction in the normal production of melatonin, which suppresses cell division in cancerous cells.

Mr Smith thinks gradually an understanding of the potential to make use of the view of the night sky is being realised.

He argues it could have benefits through ecotourism associated with protected, natural, starlit skies.

The International Astronomical Union has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to pursue the goal of identifying and protecting astronomical sites of historic significance.

The US National Park Service has launched a night-time-visits service in a joint effort between astronomers and park staff. But Mr Smith thinks far more can be done to cut down on the use of lights at night.

There is no evidence, he argues, that increasing the use of lights at night reduces crime levels.

And he thinks the use of “blinding headlights” could be reduced.

“In many places in the world, one can drive around moderately lit, smaller towns with side lights. In the countryside, moderate headlights can be supported with catseye road reflectors,” he says.

The International Year of Astronomy commemorates the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of a telescope to study the night sky

and aims to give people all over the world the chance to experience the wonders of the night-time sky.

This year is also the anniversary of many other important dates in the history of astronomy, including the publishing of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, Huygens’ Systema Saturnium and the first Moon landing. Some 140 countries are participating and the UK will host a series of events, such as spring and autumn moon watches, a competition for 1,000 schools to win a telescope, and a national programme of dark sky activities that are aimed at getting as many members of the public as possible looking up at the night sky.

Scotland gazes up through some of the least polluted skies in the world, and there is a campaign to create internationally recognised “dark sky parks” where visitors could go to enjoy the full spectacle of the night sky.

There are currently two internationally recognised dark sky parks in the United States and one in Canada, but as yet no such area in Europe.

Dark Sky Scotland, in conjunction with the John Muir Trust and Forestry Commission Scotland, organises activities and events throughout the year.