Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Strike a light - its bright out there!

Do we really need all these lights blazing away? Just look at England in particular! 
It’s a good job that the three wise men were following the “Star of Bethlehem” over two thousand years ago, because if they tried to do the same in today’s light polluted skies, for instance around Glasgow, the UK city twinned with Bethlehem, they would have a fat chance of finding the baby Jesus!

Perhaps it was this fact that set Glasgow city council members thinking. I imagine that, having finished their mid-winter meeting on twinning arrangements with the holy town, they all wandered out into Glasgow’s cold winter air and looked up at an orange, milky sky, completely devoid of any stars at all.  

The city has however begun to take action; recently it has won a contract worth millions of pounds under plans from the governments green fund. Street lights will be replaced with low-energy LEDs so that the familiar sodium glow gives way to bright white light, while lights are also being switched off or dimmed to save money.

As well as saving money, it will be a boon to sky watchers in the surrounding area, as LED lights provide more illumination on the ground and less to the clouds. Close to 100% of the light goes downward, unlike conventional street lights which send a third of their glow into the night sky, causing light pollution. So, well done Glasgow I say!!

So it was with great interest that I read a report which the Labour party has just unveiled, where they had surveyed 1141 councils in England responsible for a total of 5.7 million street lights. It found that 558,000 lights are now being switched off at night, eight times as many as in May 2010. A further 797,000 are being dimmed, ten times as many as when the Coalition came to power.

This is great news is it not? Well, no actually, apparently not. The Labour party lambasted the Government for “plunging Britain into darkness", claiming the number of lights switched off had "soared" in recent years. Hilary Benn, the shadow (get it!) community secretary, suggested that the safety of people walking in the dark could be put at risk by the money saving measures.

Apparently, across all councils, 29 per cent of lights are being turned off or dimmed at night in Conservative-controlled areas, compared with 13 per cent in Labour areas. As street lighting in England costs councils approximately £616m per year and can account for up to 30% of their carbon emissions, I will leave it up to you to make your own conclusions. 

It’s easy to forget that being bathed in light is a relatively modern phenomenon. Although electric streetlights first began appearing in European capitals in the mid-1800s, widespread street lighting did not become common place until well into the 20th century. Nowadays, less than 10% of the UK population can see the beauty of a natural night sky full of stars.

Also, it is worth remembering that nearly a third of vertebrates and some 60% of invertebrates are nocturnal, depending on darkness for survival. High levels of light pollution can mean that they may become disoriented, which can disrupt migration, cause a decrease in reproduction and reduce the time allowing them to forage properly for food.

Just one final thought on the importance of seeing the night sky clearly. The stars have always played an important part in religious ceremonies, while navigators used them to travel at night, both over land and at sea. 

As galaxies go, the Milky Way which we see from earth is a bit of a “middleweight” really, as it only has between 100 to 400 billion stars. However, when you look up into the night sky, the most you can see from any one point on the globe is only around 2,500. (The largest “heavyweight" galaxy that we know about on the other hand, has over 100 trillion stars).

I always feel that this unbelievable display should also play another important role, making sure that if any one of us ever becomes rather “full of our own importance”, then a quick look up at the galaxies should promptly put us firmly back in our place.

But if we cannot see the stars………………………

1 comment:

  1. Hello - I heard you on Hares, glad to have found your blog. Re the above, I commend to you Psalm 8: ' When I consider the heavens, the works of thy fingers, the moon and stars which thou hast established, what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?' Cheers!