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Astronomer: Dark Skies Protect Health, Natural Resources – Transylvania County, NC


Last updated 11/23/2020 at 3:14pm

Astronomer and educator Stephen Martin talked about light pollution and the importance of dark skies at last week’s Transylvania Natural Resource Council meeting and made the case for why dark skies are not only important to preserve the region’s natural resources, but also to protect citizens’ health.

Martin said, as an astronomer and stargazer, many don’t realize that no matter where they live in the world, about half of the time the earth lives in darkness. Light pollution, he said, throws off the natural balance the natural world has between darkness and light, and has a significant negative impact on the world around us.

“Light pollution is excess light produced by humans,” he said. “There are natural forms of light, such as the moon and starlight, but this is in addition to that and has several dramatic effects. It prevents us from seeing the night sky, which has an aesthetic component. It has a tremendous effect on ecosystems, both human and natural ecosystems. It’s a waste of energy and it has dramatic health effects. It’s a form of pollution. It’s as serious as air, water and land pollution, and…we protect the land, the water and the air Why not the night sky? It’s one of these types of pollutions that are kind of pervasive in our environments. It’s almost invisible to us because we don’t realize its effects, but there are some dramatic effects – just as severe as land, air and water pollution.”

Light pollution in the U.S. and across the world has increased exponentially and average yearly growth rates for light pollution is between 5 and 10 percent in North America, according to Martin.

Martin said the human body and the natural world have evolved around the cycles of light and dark, and that both are equally important for functional and healthy bodies and ecosystems. In the daytime, it’s important for humans to receive enough bright light, and in the nighttime total darkness is needed for restful, uninterrupted sleep. Martin said the impact of light pollution on human health may be equal or greater than the effects of chemical pollutants. Martian said studies have shown that light pollution can lead to certain chronic and deadly diseases like diabetes, obesity and breast cancer, and that “over lighting” can disrupt humans’ natural hormone cycles.

In the natural world, any animal’s migratory patterns, mating patterns, feeding patterns and more are highly dependent on light. Plants depend on darkness and light in step with lunar patterns to undergo growth, flowering, dormancy and pollination. Artificial light sources can confuse plant’s sensitive photoreceptors and cause premature death.

If you look at a light pollution map at, most of the Eastern seaboard is lit up like a Christmas tree, showing hotspots of light pollution in densely populated areas. However, if you zoom in on Brevard, pockets of dark skies are revealed in the areas occupied by the public lands throughout the southern Appalachians.

With the inevitable increase in light pollution from population growth means that truly dark skies are becoming a scarce natural resource. It also means that in existing pockets like those found above Pisgah National Forest, dark skies are a resource worth protecting for their ecological and economic benefits to the area.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is one of the largest organizations working to protect dark skies across the globe, and one of the ways it promotes dark skies is awarding certifications for official “Dark Sky Communities.” The IDA has designations for other types of places like parks, sanctuaries, reserves and urban dark sky places, which are areas that have banded together to adopt effective outdoor lighting ordinances and have worked to educate residents about the benefits of dark skies.

One such community is Fountain Hill, Ariz., which has embraced its dark skies as a point of pride for the community and as a tourist draw, holding the annual Dark Sky Festival, with activities and presentations by astronomers meant to educate and entertain visitors about the wonders of the night sky. One of the greatest advantages of taking steps toward protecting night skies, Martin said, is that it is both easy and cost effective.

“The main thing I want to point out is that even though the effects of light pollution are severe in some cases as chemical pollution, it’s much easier to clean up,” he said. “You don’t need to have big cleanup efforts to clean up light pollution as you do chemical pollution. You just have to turn lights off, and the ecosystem very quickly restores itself. It’s very cheap in terms of environmental restoration.”

Martin advocated for cost saving and environmentally friendly solutions, such as only using “shielded” outdoor lighting, or lighting that points downwards. Many types of outdoor lights, Martin said, point upwards or outwards, which is both a waste of energy (mostly fossil fuels) and money from the electricity costs. Other solutions include only using the wattage that you need for outdoor lighting and using technology, such as motion sensored lighting and “low temperature” or warmer lighting, as blue light is one of the most damaging types of light.

Additionally, poor outdoor lighting can often decrease safety despite the misconception that more outdoor lighting leads to a safer environment. Unshielded lighting often produces a glare that can blind people walking or driving at night, creating a safety hazard for pedestrians and also for potential crime.

Martin shared several resources with the council about dark sky-friendly outdoor lighting ordinances, and the council agreed that though the City of Brevard has recently taken steps to improve outdoor lighting, the county as a whole could improve.

“We need the dark as much as the light,” he said. “We tend to be a light friendly culture, but darkness is as important especially for our bodies and the natural world, and it’s a shared problem. Our light doesn’t stay in our own areas or municipalities. It actually travels. And, so, it’s really everyone’s problem, but it’s also everyone’s solution. The nice thing is it’s as easy as turning off the light switch.”

The TNRC’s newly elected chair Ken Wilcox thanked Martin for his presentation, and said he would like to see more interest in protecting the county’s dark skies in the future.

“I think we can now include dark skies as a natural resource for Transylvania County,” Wilcox said. “That’s certainly something I never thought about before, so a good justification to protect another natural resource in our county.”


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