Time to switch approach to light pollution

With ongoing the rise of towns and cities across the world, large areas are becoming increasingly obscured by light pollution. The UAE is among those addressing the issue in a bid to clean-up once-pristine night skies.

Sea turtle nesting is among factors leading Abu Dhabi to try to control light pollution. Galen Clarke / The National
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With the continued development of civilisation around the world, there are fewer places left where the skies are completely unaffected by light pollution.

Some lighting manufacturers are becoming increasingly aware of the issue of light pollution, as are property owners and developers in the Middle East.

In Abu Dhabi, the environmental services team at the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) monitors and audits properties on Saadiyat Island so that lights do not cause endangered Hawksbill sea turtles to head away from the sea and in the wrong direction.

During nesting season, for example, lighting at night is dimmed to facilitate in the conservation of baby turtles that hatch along Saadiyat Beach.

Certain manufacturers have also spent years trying to minimise light pollution with their fixtures within urban centres, and some are expected to showcase their latest wares at Light Middle East, an industry exhibition set to run in Dubai next month.

Last year, the event featured about 220 exhibitors from 22 different countries.

Musco Lighting, which attended the show in 2012, is the International Dark-Sky Association's only platinum-level corporate partner listed on the group's website for this year. The company's division in the Arabian Gulf, known as Musco Gulf Lighting, oversaw the installation of nearly 4,700 lighting fixtures in and around Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

While it says that it has been working to create lights that help reduce excess spill, glare and energy consumption, Musco Lighting has also encountered some resistance when it comes to buyers who want to purchase these products in Mena.

In recent years within this region, there has been "more of a focus on reduction of light pollution but the price is still a big driving factor over the value of the product," says Brett Paulsen, the general manager for Musco Lighting, which is Musco Gulf Lighting's parent company within the United States.

"Musco Gulf Lighting takes spill and glare control into account on every project that our engineers design specific for the client," adds Mr Paulsen.

Other companies are tackling certain problem spots where light pollution has become particularly bad.

For instance, many large parking lots in the Mena region, and other parts of the world for that matter, still rely on lights that point toward the sky and are visible from miles away. These often rely on incandescent or fluorescent lamps, which typically use reflectors to focus light in a single direction.

But lamps with light emitting diodes (LED) normally do not have this problem and can illuminate a parking lot's asphalt, rather than the sky above it. LED technology also requires about 70 per cent less energy than common outdoor lighting technologies, according to some industry estimates, and it can help reduce major aspects of light pollution, including trespass light, which wastes energy and annoys neighbours, says George Bou Mitri, the general manager for GE Lighting in the Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

GE Lighting says it has been investing money in trying to boost the quality of LED lighting technology, which the company sees as one way to manage lighting pollution.

Within the UAE, GE Lighting has been working with government officials to improve street illumination within Abu Dhabi and limit light pollution, Mr Mitri says. He adds the company has been introducing LED-based signs for the outdoors to help in these efforts.

Of course, there are still places in the world that offer views of the night sky close to what had been the norm for thousands of years.

Among them is Death Valley National Park in the United States.

Known as the lowest point in North America, the park is one of the latest so-called gold-tier international dark sky parks to be designated by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

This 13,700 square kilometre park is located far enough from major urban centres in California and Nevada that "much of the night sky above the desert floor is near pristine and, in many places, offers views close to what could be seen before the rise of cities", according to IDA, which made its announcement in February.

The IDA is a 25-year-old organisation that is headquartered in the United States. Its legion of dark sky advocates - about 5,000 members globally - have successfully called attention to the pitfalls of light pollution, including the disruption of natural ecosystems and the waste of energy.

In some cases, they have even helped convince various levels of governments to adopt "dark sky-friendly legislation", which prohibits the use of state funds to install or replace lights unless they meet certain energy-efficient and dark sky requirements.

But their task has become more challenging over the years as metropolises in more of the expand in more parts of the world and light up the skies with luminescent billboards and glowing street lamps. This is especially true in the developing world, where countries have increased the production and installation of light fixtures along city streets, in parking lots and around neighbourhood homes.

More developed economies also share in the blame. In north America alone, one study found the level of light emissions increased an average of 6 per cent annually between 1947 and 2000, according to the National Park Service, which falls under the US department of the interior.

Some entrepreneurial projects are now trying to find creative solutions to reduce energy that goes into light production, even though questions remain around whether these efforts will ultimately minimise light pollution.

A project known as Glowing Plant, for example, generated more than US$484,000 earlier this year to fund research that would make plants capable of emitting light.

For its part, the IDA has been "working directly with lighting manufacturers and retailers to make sure the proper style of lighting is being made and sold", says Scott Kardel, the managing director for IDA.

"In developed economies, as people are looking to make moves for new styles of lighting, there's a great potential to do the right thing," Mr Kardel adds. "It's not always as easy to make that argument or to get a good foot in the door in some of the places that are just starting off with lighting."

To encourage the lighting industry to adopt some of its recommendations, the IDA has developed a programme that awards a "seal of approval" on technologies that reduce glare, high light levels and so-called trespass light, which illuminates areas where a glow is unwanted by stargazers and astronomers. The association's main criterion requires manufacturers to produce fixtures that can be installed where light streams downward, "instead of on someone's face or up in the sky to create glare", says Mr Kardel.

"There are other considerations, too, in terms of the colour and quality of the light."

Still, dark sky advocates say plenty more work needs to be done to convert existing lamps that dispel too much light into the skies.

The IDA is due to discuss some of its latest strategies at a 25th anniversary annual meeting, set for November 15 in Arizona.

"We will be looking backward, in terms of how far we've come, but also what are the challenges we face now and what can we expect for lighting in the future," says Mr Kardel.