The Loss of the Starry Night

Out on Gifford Field with the night sky above, the MH Astronomy Club kicked off its Star Party, a fun gathering that lets students look up and admire the sky above. Although the sights were mesmerizing, many in the crowd such as Austin Peart, president of the Astronomy Club who helps organize these events, understood that they were only seeing a glimpse of the true night sky.

“If we didn’t have light pollution, and you were to look up at the sky, you would be able to see the Milky Way, our home galaxy,” Peart said. 

Austin Peart found his passion for astrophotography (taking images of objects in space) after getting the chance to see Venus through a telescope at a Star Party. He, and many in the scientific community, are deeply concerned with how much of an impact light pollution, a relatively issue for the environment, has on our sky and planet as a whole.

What is Light Pollution?

Light pollution is excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial (usually outdoor) light. This type of pollution washes away the stars in the night sky, while also having negative effects on health, ecosystems, and energy wastage. 

A little more than a century ago, anyone who looked up into the sky would be met with a picturesque scene of the Milky Way in all of its glory, a view that inspired artists like Van Gogh and Shakespeare.  Just like turning on the lights in a classroom makes it harder to see the light from a projector, having too much artificial light emitted into the sky makes it impossible to see the light from stars above. Many argue that losing that view puts us out of touch what makes us who we are.

Environmental Impacts

The effects of light pollution reach far beyond the loss of starlight. “It’s not only a bad thing for astronomers; it’s also killing turtles and marine life. One example is that when turtles naturally hatch on beaches, they’re supposed to follow the moonlight reflected off the ocean. The problem is we have these cities right next to them emitting so much light pollution that the turtles go towards the city and end up dying,” Peart said.

Light pollution can also have adverse human health effects. Because our bodies are based on a natural cycle of lightness and darkness, exposure to light while sleeping causes melatonin production to be suppressed, resulting in sleep disorders and other health problems. 

What is Morris Hills Doing

A major challenge that Morris Hills administrators face is balancing the amount of light pollution we emit and safety concerns. 

“We have events that are going on around the clock,”  said Mr. Merle, assistant principal at Morris Hills. “Many of those things go well into the evening; I’ve had the marching band come back after midnight. So obviously for safety reasons and concerns you have a number of exterior lights around the parking lots, as well as around the outside of the buildings.”

Mr. Merle also confirmed that the vast majority of the lights have shielding, which allows the light emitted to be directed downward and not towards the sky.

Some lights, such as a new one pointed toward the flag pole, are shined upward to pay respect to the flag. “You cannot fly an American flag in the dark unless there is a spotlight on it,”  Mr. Merle said, referencing flag codes that require certain practices to show respect towards the American flag.

How Can We Stop Light Pollution?

Fortunately, there are many ways one  could mitigate the effects of light pollution. Shielding is a practical solution, ensuring that outdoor lights point downwards and not to the sky. A step that everyone can take to end light pollution is to only use lights when necessary and to use bulbs that are energy efficient. 

There is a sense of humility and wonder that is gained by seeing one’s place in the universe. A starry sky left for future generations will allow them to humble themselves and rekindle their connection to nature, a bond that is all but certain to be lost in our children’s time.