Light pollution

WHAT have we lost if we lose the night sky? Spending this Christmas on the highly-developed coastal fringe of Tenerife, I looked up from my balcony into a sky no darker than whisky to see not a single star. The flashing of fluorescent Christmas decorations combined with light pouring out from a series of gigantic hotels, apartment blocks and neon bar signs completely to blot out the black.

It occurred to me that the modern equivalent of shepherds, tour reps guarding their flocks by night, would be very unlikely even to glimpse the Star of Bethlehem if it were to appear today, let alone be able to follow it.

In fact, a comet that has been likened to that legendary star, Comet Machholz, will be at its most visible today and tomorrow, but those who want to glimpse its passing will need either a telescope or a dark field, and even in Scotland it may be easier to find the former than the latter.

On a picture of the world seen from space at night, the scale of the light pollution from urban areas in western Europe and North America is clear.

London looks like a drunk’s vomit with lumps of ultra brightness amid the orange sprawl, the long string of the orbital motorway, round blobs at Heathrow and Gatwick.

In comparison, Scotland is comparatively dark, but it is catching up fast. At NewYear time in Angus, at a cottage in a quiet glen I have visited for 30 years, every year the amber glow cast by the lights of distant small towns is bigger and brighter than before. Even there, 12 miles from the nearest shop, there is no longer any real blackness.

Once people slipped though the night using lanterns – now like children afraid of the dark or each other – we never turn out the lights. Driving past orbital developments on the outskirts of Dundee at night this week, I could believe they were visible from space as every deserted superstore and cinema belched out supernova brightness.

I feel lucky that the night sky was a part of my childhood, that I saw the complexity and completeness of a canopy of stars on a clear night. And that I experienced the utter blackness of a cloudy one.

Once, as teenagers, friends and I took a boat out on a small loch on a moonlit night. As we moored the boat, clouds blew across and we stumbled home in pitch black, unable even to see our feet. It was a thrilling and salutary experience.

But howmuch does it matter if my children never know how dark the night really can be?

They complain of the dark sometimes despite the dull glow of a streetlamp near our home spilling into their room, giving almost enough light to read by.

What have we lost if we lose the night sky?

The controversial artist Tracy Emin on her recent Desert Island Discs told of a failed suicide attempt when, as a young woman, she threw herself into a river at night – and instead of drowning was confronted by a life-changing vision of the starry dark.

How much does the night sky affect our ability to develop a sense of our place in the universe, an understanding of the magnificence and power of the natural world, the sense of perspective and proportion that one needs to cope with the vagaries of existence? How much is the night sky a part of what keeps us sane?

In her essay, Into the Dark, the poet Kathleen Jamie rails against the disappearance of “natural, courteous dark” from ourmidwinter. Even at home in Fife, even on a sea voyage to Orkney she found it impossible to locate a patch of unpolluted blackness. Even on the North Sea, electricity spilled from oil rigs on the horizon, which she likened to “icebergs on fire”.

But aesthetics aside, evidence is mounting that exposure to artificial light at night may be injurious to health as well as to a sense of our place in the natural world.

People who are exposed to lots of artificial light at night have higher rates of breast and prostate cancer. People who are blind or who live in the Arctic Circle often have higher rates of melatonin and lower rates of cancer.

Natural light such as moonlight, starlight and lightning does not depress melatonin levels. Children who sleep with an artificial light on, however, can have lower levels of melatonin. They appear to have a higher incidence of short-sightedness; they may also have a higher rate of leukaemia. The increase in the number of children sleeping with a light on has been put forward as one explanation for the increase in childhood leukaemia.

Campaigners for prison reform say long-term exposure to fluorescent lighting at night contributes to depression and suicide rates in prison, as well as other problems.

In England, light pollution is about to be enshrined as a statutory nuisance in a new bill proposed in the Queen’s speech. Scotland also should be prepared to start trying to hide her light under a bushel.

Otherwise, as a nation, we may go from seeing the universe in a glass of whisky to seeing an amber-coloured fog where there used to be a universe.

The Scottish Herald
January 5th 2005