On Sept. 23, the sun set at 6:43 p.m. on Mayflower Hill. Sunset will only continue to get earlier as the year progresses, with the winter sun setting as early as the end of a 2:30 p.m. class. Naturally, this means a significant portion of campus life occurs in the dark. A quick look around campus will reveal the sight of countless outdoor lamps and light fixtures to alleviate the early dusks. However, these fixtures contribute to an often-forgotten problem – light pollution.
Light pollution refers to the excessive and intrusive presence of artificial light that disrupts natural darkness. In large quantities, it can have significant effects on the ecology, astronomy, and even the health of a community.
There are several keywords that may help readers understand different forms of light pollution. Light trespass is the seeping of light across property lines, affecting the ambiance of a given area. Trespass can contribute to glare and clutter, two other forms of light pollution. Clutter is defined as the melding of overly bright, confusing, and conflicting light sources. A good example of clutter is multiple stop lights at a single intersection. Skyglow is the clouding of a clear night sky, the most egregious offense of harmful light infrastructure.
There are several significant side effects of light pollution. As mentioned above, skyglow causes dust and water particles to disperse artificial light into the atmosphere. This ‘brightening’ of the sky means that the stars lose their twinkle, sometimes disappearing completely. Typically, the more people there are in an area the more noticeable the effect becomes. As an experiment, the next time you are walking outside at night, look up. Chances are, you won’t be seeing the Milky Way.
High levels of nighttime light can also disrupt the behavior of local wildlife. Lamps, streetlights, and other outdoor fixtures confuse nocturnal animals, hindering their feeding and mating patterns. These animals are also more likely to be visible in well-lit areas, which can put them at risk of human interference. Large urban swaths of light are also known to change migration patterns and draw pollinating organisms away from plants.
The ramifications of light pollution extend beyond the environment. There are tangible effects on human activity and behavior. An obvious example is that high levels of bright light can impact sleep health. In extreme cases, this can contribute to sleeping disorders and long-lasting health problems. A more blatant consequence of light pollution, however, lies in our community organization. Erratic and intrusive lighting brings a disorienting feeling to an area. Light that is too intense or not intense enough contributes to the perception of hostility or safety of a given street or sidewalk. The placement, color, and appearance of outdoor lighting are all important to the construction of a human-friendly community. For example, an article by Snopes reports that blue streetlights are associated with lower levels of crime and suicide, demonstrated by infrastructure changes in Glasgow, Scotland, and Nara, Japan. Not only does this blue lighting minimize the side effects of light pollution, but it also promotes a healthier and more sustainable community.
Unfortunately, light pollution touches nearly every corner of the globe. According to Euronews, less than 30 percent of the human population is able to see the Milky Way, a number which grows continually smaller over time. Euronews also reports that the lower levels of skyline visibility are equivalent to a 9.6 percent annual increase in brightness. Has the need for light taken our view of the cosmos? It seems that with every passing day, this question has a more definitive answer.
Not only does a muted night sky take away the beauty of nature, but it can cause observable psychological harm. Reduced visibility and environmental despair are proven to decrease levels of happiness and satisfaction. Depression has also been shown to increase from staggering levels of light pollution.
Small changes can lead to meaningful results, however. The College community can do its part in mitigating the presence of light pollution. Although they do not have control over the neighboring Waterville area, the College is perfectly capable of promoting campus life through restorative light practices. For example, downward-facing light fixtures drastically reduce glare and face away from the night sky. Shades covering the top of bulbs further reduce these effects. The College could significantly reduce pollution levels by replacing open and upward-facing lamps. Using warmer colors and longer-lasting bulbs can reduce energy costs and soften the appearance of light.
An active effort taken by the College to reduce and mitigate light pollution is the first step in reclaiming our view of the night sky. Over time, these healthy light practices may lead to a happier student body and a more tightly-knit campus.
~ Wyatt Tune `26