Environmental activists tackle new cause: holiday light pollution

Hang Christmas Lights?

Here’s something else to think about: light pollution.

Local municipalities like Ann Arbor and several states have enacted laws in recent years – sometimes referred to as dark sky legislation – to reduce lighting, arguing they promote energy conservation, public safety, aesthetic interests. and astronomical research.

The concept of light pollution is new to concerns about polluted rivers, lakes and air. But it’s a growing problem that many scientists and lawmakers are taking seriously.

This is especially important in Michigan, which tries to attract tourists to its outdoor parks that are perfect for stargazing. And by one count, Detroit is the second most light-polluted large city in the United States.

This may come as a surprise, considering years of hearing about how lights help deter crime and make neighborhoods party. But scientists are now looking at how lights affect nocturnal animals, plants, and human health.

Ann Arbor City Council passed its outdoor lighting ordinance this fall.

“The new outdoor lighting regulations are aimed at improving the quality of life in the city of Ann Arbor,” said Brett Lenart, director of planning. living things – us included. “

Lights on private property, including Christmas displays, are still permitted for 90 days. Existing lighting that does not meet the new rules can be maintained, but replacement lighting must comply.

New lighting fixtures must also be partially protected, depending on the type of installation. And decorative lighting of buildings and landscaping is prohibited between midnight and 6 a.m., except for businesses open during these hours.

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Parking lot lighting is limited to what the city calls 6-foot candles and they must be turned off after hours for non-residential use.

But before you breathe a sigh of relief that the holiday lights are OK – or you don’t live in A², groups like the International Dark-Sky Association are working to pass legislation to limit the lighting around the world.

The dangers of light pollution

Don’t you think light pollution exists?

Take a moment to look up into the night sky and start counting the stars. The more artificial light there is coming from homes and businesses, the fewer bright stars you will be able to see. And for some, that’s a big deal.

The non-partisan International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson, Ariz., Says light pollution is any adverse effect or impact attributable to artificial light – directed or used by humans for any purpose – at night. .

This could include excessive lights directing Santa Claus towards your house.

And, of course, the lights are what give Paris its nickname of The City of Lights.

“We’re not trying to stop Santa from finding anyone’s roof,” said Sally Oey, professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan, who notes that the tasteful holiday displays are decorative. “But there are also a lot of people who don’t appreciate extremely bright light installations.”

What is the stake of all this lighting?

Well, Oey, who is also Michigan Dark Skies coordinator, says stargazing for one thing. Researchers cannot see the stars through bright lights. But more importantly, she added, the light destroys the nocturnal habitats of billions of birds and insects.

Oey calls this an insect apocalypse.

The International Dark-Sky Association has been fighting light pollution since 1988 and claims to have “made significant progress”, reaching 51 countries, with members and advocates in North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa and Africa. Asia.

At the same time, he recognizes that the problem is also getting worse.

Light pollution, according to the association, “is increasing worldwide at twice the growth rate of the world’s population.” In other words, 8 in 10 people live under light-polluted night skies and in the United States alone, $ 3 billion is spent annually on outdoor lighting.

Research, according to the association, suggests that artificial light at night can even harm human health, increasing the risks of obesity, depression, sleep disturbances, diabetes, breast cancer, and more.

The group works to promote light-limiting legislation and “encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and education. public “.

Controversy in Detroit

Yet in addition to too much lighting, not enough was also a problem.

Officials said inadequate lighting encourages crime and makes some feel unsafe.

Yet last year the Savvy Sleeper – an online group that writes about and promotes sleep products – found Detroit’s lousy light pollution rankings keep city residents from sleeping at night. , literally.

In a ranking of the 50 most light-polluted cities based on government data, Detroit was No. 2, just behind Washington DC and ahead of Reno, Nevada; Anchorage, Alaska; Minneapolis, Minnesota and Atlanta.

Detroit also had the highest percentage of residents sleeping less than seven hours per night.

Was there a connection between these two things? The Savvy Sleeper thought so.

“The data clearly shows that additional lighting beyond normal daylight hours does more than prevent us from seeing our starry skies,” said a Savvy Sleeper editor. “It prevents us from getting optimal sleep.”

And three years before the Savvy Sleeper Report, the Detroit Lions were making headlines, not for winning games, but because they were lighting up the roof of Ford Field. Some locals weren’t really enthusiastic about it.

They even started an online petition to stop him.

The Free Press also reported that a study at the time of the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health found that blue LED light “has serious implications for night driving visibility.”

Light, according to the study, can impact birds and insects that fly at night.

And the city, it turned out, has a zoning ordinance that says, “All reasonable steps should be taken to ensure that offsite nighttime glow and light spillovers are minimized to the greatest extent possible. “

The Lions said they follow city protocols when obtaining permits and comply with ordinances, and have received “positive feedback” from law enforcement. More light for a “more dynamic” atmosphere of downtown Detroit.

But, on Monday, the team added, they also listened to locals and dimed the lights a bit, which seemed to satisfy them. The lights are always on and can glow in different colors for various causes and holidays.

They just don’t shine as brightly.

It’s hard to imagine the Detroit skyline without the lights of Ford Field. And that makes the city more festive during the holidays. But light pollution advocates warn that you also don’t want the lights to be so bright that the Magi can’t see the Star of Bethlehem.

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or fwitsil@freepress.com.

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