The battle to save our night skies from the light

Campaigners say darkness has been eroded over the past 100 years, with a negative effect on the planet

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For thousands of years, human beings have looked up at the night sky.

The stars were a source of wonder, inspiring advances in art, science and literature, and providing a method for explorers to navigate the globe.

But the darkness has been steadily eroded over the past 100 years since the widespread introduction of electricity, which now pollutes vast reaches of the Earth’s night skies with artificial light.

DarkSky International is fighting to stop that by promoting and certifying “dark skies” – those which are free of light pollution.

The organisation has so far certified more than 200 locations worldwide since naming Flagstaff, Arizona in the US as the first International Dark Sky City in 2001.

There are now more than 160,000 square kilometres of protected land and night skies in 22 countries on six continents, with the list expanding each year.

The Middle East features only one certified dark sky location – the Ramon Crater Nature Reserve in the Negev Desert in southern Israel.

But Red Sea Global announced last April that it intends to create the world's largest certified dark sky reserve on the Red Sea. It aims to raise awareness of “the importance of keeping the skies dark at night by implementing solutions that minimise light pollution to help preserve the natural habitats in the area”.

There is also a continuing project to certify Bahrain's Hawar Islands, off the western coast of Qatar, as a Dark Sky Reserve, although it is on hold while a new hotel is built, Bahrain Stargazers confirmed to The National.

The loss of night skies is a global problem that is increasing by about 10 per cent each year, according to German-based expert Christopher Kyba.

He thinks that over the next decade, the vast majority of people won't be able to see Orion, which is one of our brightest constellations.

“It will just be taken away for ever for people,” Dani Robertson, author of All Through the Night: Why our Lives Depend on Dark Skies, told The National.

She is a delegate for DarkSky International but her day job is to monitor the dark sky reserve status of Snowdonia National Park in Wales, where she estimates you can see “thousands and thousands” of stars.

It is one of 18 areas in the UK with dark sky status, including six of the national parks that are declared Dark Sky Reserves..

Robertson said Wales, which has four areas with certified dark sky status, is home to the highest percentage of protected dark skies anywhere in the world.

“You can see the Milky Way and you can see other galaxies. You can see our neighbouring galaxy, which is Andromeda, which is very rare to be able to see,” she said.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leading Roman Catholic in England, used a Christmas message to reveal his support for the movement, saying too many lights are a hinderance to deeper spirituality. Time spent in a reserve serves as a boost to the faithful, he said.

"This helps us to appreciate the benefits of darkness as the context in which to appreciate most clearly the qualities of light, especially of the distant, primeval light of the created world," he said.

Yet experts estimate that 98 per cent of people in the UK live under heavily light-polluted skies.

“My mum used to take us youth hostelling when I was growing up,” Emma Marrington, landscape enhancement lead at CPRE, the countryside charity, told The National.

“We lived near Heathrow, where there is a lot of noise and a lot of light. I remember going up to the Yorkshire Dales. I remember getting out of bed at night thinking 'it is so dark'. There is nothing but stars. There was just no light. It was really remote.”

Ms Marrington believes everyone should be able to experience dark skies, but many children growing up now will never see the Milky Way, their own galaxy.

“In a really dark sky, like in Northumberland National Park, you would see the Milky Way. Whereas in south-west London, there is not a chance.”

But people like Ms Marrington are fighting hard to preserve, and if possible, restore, dark skies.

As a specialist in national landscapes, previously known as national parks, she promotes the value of dark skies, monitoring them across the country, while advising councils, residents and businesses on changes to minimise the impact of light pollution.

To achieve Dark Sky status, the darkness must be a certain level – about two on the Bortle scale, to be precise.

“The Bortle scale, which is relatively new in terms of astronomy, measures how dark a site is,” she said.

“I've got a thing called the sky quality meter, which I go out [with] and sample how dark places are. Most of our sites have to sit at two on the Bortle scale, which thankfully they do.”

One on the Bortle scale is a pristine dark sky, something almost impossible to find anywhere in the western world.

“The highest is a nine and that's when you're not seeing any stars at all really.

“You'll see the Moon, you'll see a couple of satellites. But a lot of our inner cities and suburbs have that level of light pollution,” Ms Robertson said.

The brightening of the night skies has been a slow creep, with many not realising what has been lost, she said.

“There are generations of people living in [built-up areas] who have never seen stars where they live. But to them, it's completely normal and they don't know what they're missing,” Ms Robertson added.

Experts say that is a tragedy, in many respects, not least because the stars have driven humankind to think beyond themselves.

“It’s inspired art, poetry, music,” Ms Robertson said.

“If you were to go to France now and look at the scene that Van Gogh painted of the starry night, he wouldn't be able to see half of the stars that he painted in that scene. That's so sad, isn't it?

“And there could be the new Van Gogh somewhere who's got that skill locked away, but they haven't got that inspiration of the night sky any more.”

But much more besides has been lost, and is further at risk, due to the brightening of the night skies.

According to the Sir Jules Thorn Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, all life on Earth has evolved under a daily cycle of light and dark.

And many animals use darkness to their advantage, including owls, which are losing vast areas of their habitats because they are light-shy, Ms Robertson said.

“They don't like to hunt in light places because their eyes are so sensitive to light; it becomes too bright. So they can't find their prey so easily. And if it's too bright, their prey also wouldn't come out because they know they're exposed,” she said.

“So when we look at natural cycles, owls would find less food on nights with a bright moon because their prey know that 'oh, we're illuminated by a full moon'. We've destroyed all that.”

The biggest losers, though, are insects, which Ms Robertson describes as the building blocks of the entire food chain. Without them, she said, there is no food, which means human beings will not survive as a species.

Yet their numbers are crashing in the UK. “We've lost 60 per cent of our winged insects in the past 20 years,” she said.

“I remember being driven round by my dad when I was younger – so about 15, 20 years ago – and you'd have to pull over and clean the [insects off the] windscreen.

“I can drive now for two or three hours in the National Park and I get two or three. Even in the dark, there's nothing there any more. We've just destroyed it.”

Moths have a short life cycle, with a finite mating period. But if they spend their time flocking around a light, they don't mate, which can wipe out an entire ecosystem in just a couple of weeks.

And then there is the physical effect on humans.

Studies suggest the flood of bright artificial light both inside and outside our homes is affecting people’s health.

“Light and dark is very important to our physiology and our biological workings,” Ms Robertson said.

“One of the reasons we have very thin eyelids is because your brain is getting light fed into these light receptors.”

Even when we are asleep the brain is measuring how light it is around us. The body uses this to produce hormones that either wake us up or wind us down.

“As the light fades into the evening, into dusk, then the brain would be triggered into releasing a different type of hormone that will make us sleepy,” Ms Robertson said.

Artificial light interferes with those processes, because the brain can't distinguish it from sunlight, which keeps the “awake” hormones coursing through our bodies.

“In the last 10 or 15 years doctors have started to realise the impact that all this light is having on us,” she added.

“It has been linked to things like, obviously insomnia, but then, because of the hormonal element, it's also things like diabetes.

“The most recent study actually [found] women who were more exposed to light pollution were at a much higher risk of developing breast cancer.”

So what can be done about it? Plenty, experts say. Correcting light pollution can be done with a simple and instant fix.

“The good thing about light pollution is it's completely instant. It's not like plastic that is going to outlive us all and be there for ever,” Ms Robertson said.

All lights should be a warmer white, particularly those on the outside of a property, which should ideally be on a sensor.

“Make sure they're not uplighting, and crucially, make sure they're a warm colour temperature,” she said.

“That's better for your health. It's one of the least interfering things for wildlife.

“It's the way we mitigate having light, because humans do need light to see at night.

“I'm not advocating everybody turning off all the street lights and we plunge the world into darkness.

“But there are measures that we can take and they are easy. They will save you money and cut your carbon emissions as well.”

Updated: December 29, 2023, 6:00 PM