When it comes to outer space, count me among the ranks of the laity. I doubt I could explain celestial light refraction to you with any finesse, and I probably couldn’t pick out Sirius or Betelgeuse from a police lineup. I’ve embarked on a road trip designed to stop in the “totality zone” of the 2017 solar eclipse, though, and I’ve checked out a telescope from CALS to peer at the Perseids meteor shower. And I never get tired of the way it feels when a friend comes to visit Arkansas from a big city, awestruck and slack-jawed when they catch a glimpse of the night sky from rural Garland County, or from a bank along the serpentine curves of the Buffalo River. 

The thing is, though, those places are getting harder and harder to find in Arkansas. As subdivisions and Dollar Generals and golf courses sprawl and subsume more and more acreage, they bring tons of light along with them, resulting in a bigger “sky-glow” imprint across the state. We talked about that imprint with Bruce McMath, the chair of the Arkansas Natural Sky Association. McMath, along with a small but dedicated team of volunteers, operates the nonprofit organization with an eye toward protecting what’s left of The Natural State’s “nocturnal environment” — and a mission to educate Arkansans about responsible lighting practices. 

When, in your opinion, did humans really veer off course with our adverse impacts on light pollution? Is there a spike somewhere in time when our habits began to affect the natural world exponentially, or has it been gradual?

When Tesla illuminated the World’s Fair in 1893. No, seriously, there is no discrete date, but it has not been a linear process. As electricity has become cheaper and lighting more efficient, the problem has grown. I can remember as a youngster being told to turn lights out when I was not using them. That ethic passed away some time ago. In the meantime, utility companies wanting to sell electricity off-peak at night and politicians wanting simple solutions to complicated problems have sold light as an antiseptic to crime, which it decidedly is not. 

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The commercial world has latched onto it as a look-at-me marketing device; witness the Simmons Building downtown or the new Mexican restaurant in Hillcrest, El Mezcal. Lighting has become so cheap that people are using lighting for architectural emphasis, even on homes. It’s what I call vanity lighting. There being no milkman anymore, you would think people could at least put such lights on timers, but apparently, vanity never sleeps.  

We light impulsively for little or no reason. In the absence of regulation or a conservation ethic, the use of lighting has no rational constraint on it. Eighty percent of humanity lives under light-polluted skies, and sky-glow is growing world-wide at about 2 percent a year.  

Why should we care? Can’t we just get in our cars and drive out into the country if we want to see the stars?

Well first, let me say, it is not just about seeing the stars. Turning night into day has very real environmental impacts beyond the aesthetics and cultural impacts of losing our connection to the reality of our place in the universe by covering the night sky with a blanket of light. The biology of nearly everything that lives on the surface of the planet is keyed into the cycle of light and dark that is night and day. Lighting the night alters the natural environment in ways that impact mating, feeding, migration of animals, the life cycles of plants and insects. There is emerging evidence that light pollution is playing a role in the dramatic decline in flying insect populations. Millions of migrating birds die each year, attempting to navigate through light-polluted areas. The American Medical Association tells us exposure to light at night increases our risk of depression, obesity, diabetes and some cancers, particularly breast and prostate — all epidemic diseases of modern society. Then there is the contribution all this wasted energy makes to climate change as well as air and water pollution. A 100-watt bulb left on all night for a year generates almost a half-ton of carbon dioxide. Approximately 12 percent of the country’s electrical production is used to light the outdoors at night. Most of this is wasted and unnecessary.  

But back to the stars. Yes, you can get in your car and find a natural sky, but you may have to drive for a while. There are no truly natural night skies left in Arkansas or most of the country east of the Mississippi River. Here in Arkansas, most of the best locations have limited accessibility, and for a great many people, such excursions are a luxury they can’t afford. Most young people today grow up without ever having seen the Milky Way. I think there are genuine cultural and personal development implications to this. Time on your back under a natural sky is an experiential lesson that inflates the soul and anchors it in reality. The smartphone has become the universe for our young people. It is a poor substitute for nature’s grandest spectacle.  

We’re pretty good at finding ways to avoid lights effects on our circadian rhythms when it comes to screen-time — in theory, anyway. There’s a setting on my phone, for example, that automatically dims and “warms” the light on my display at 9 p.m., presumably preparing my eyes for sleep and my brain for respite. We’re not so good at doing this outdoors. What does careless lighting look like, and where do we see the most egregious examples of it?

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Four simple principles guide responsible lighting. Violations of these principles are everywhere.  One reason not to learn about responsible lighting is once you do you can’t drive around without getting angry at the waste, light pollution and light trespass going on.  

1) Only light where needed. 

This starts with fixtures that are properly shielded. One of the most common light fixtures you will see in town or out in the country is the open-bottom style with the plastic lens hanging down from the metal top. Less than 30 percent of the light generated by these fixtures goes where it might provide useful illumination. Almost that much is either lost in the device or goes directly up into the sky. The rest is thrown out horizontally where it can cause glare or trespass on adjoining properties. Drive around the city and look closely at streetlights of this type. You will be surprised how many have been painted black or had some sheet metal appended to them to block glare zone light. These are jackleg remedies to address complaints of nearby residents who don’t want the stray light in their home.  

The common use of such fixtures reveals an ugly truth about most outdoor lighting; its purpose is not to actually illuminate anything, but merely to be there. It is fulfilling a marketing induced psychological need, not to illuminate anything useful. Otherwise, we would use fixtures that would place light evenly and efficiently on the targeted area instead of in the sky and people’s bedrooms. With good lighting, you don’t see the source directly. 

Other common instances of “where needed” abuse involves aiming floodlights at shallow horizontal angles, again throwing light into the air and causing trespass and glare on adjoining roads, highways and properties. Utility company “security lighting” is commonly guilty of this.  Such lighting is of dubious value and violates the principles of effective security lighting by generating more glare and shadows that illumination. Drive on an urban highway sometime — like Arkansas Highway 10 — and note how such lights (and so many of them) are impacting your visibility by shining light directly into your eyes.

Anonymous, courtesy of the Arkansas Natural Sky Association
Homeowner reading a book by utility company-installed, 1000-watt “security light,” located 260 feet away

2) Only light when needed.  

Almost any light left on all night at full brightness violates the “when needed” rule. The Illumination Engineering Society recommends that residential security lighting be on motion sensors; it is more likely to be effective. It recommends lighting curfews for most area outdoor lighting, using timers or sensors to dim or extinguish light late at night. Parking lot lighting can now be designed to dim when the lot is not in use and brighten when someone arrives. In Britain, they dim or extinguish street lighting late at night, and some cities in this country are now doing so as well.  

3) Only use the amount of light needed.  

“In the amount needed” is becoming a much bigger problem with the advent of LED lighting. It is so efficient that it is cheap to operate and people don’t realize that you don’t need the same lumen rating when lighting with LEDs, so gross over-lighting is becoming a big problem. This is robbing us of half or more of the potential energy savings we were hoping for with the advent of this new technology. The irony is that too much light can actually reduce overall visibility in an outdoor night time setting. So this is not only a wasteful assault on the environment, and a waste of energy and money, it is not good lighting. 

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4) Use appropriately colored light.  

As for color, LED lighting is creating a growing problem because they often have a high blue light spectrum content. Blue is biologically impactful, scatters more readily in the sky, and causes more blinding glare. Everyone who drives has experienced those painful blue headlights, the ones that seem like they’re on high-beam when they are not. Warm colored LEDs are now available and are far more pleasant in an outdoor nighttime environment.  

That is the big picture. You can visit the curse of awareness more deeply on yourself by learning more, complete with examples, here.

You mentioned utilities selling the idea lighting is a deterrent to crime and you advocate turning lights off when not in use. Are you suggesting that “security lighting” is not a real thing?

Look, this is pretty simple, and looking is the key to it. Lighting a location that is under surveillance — a prison, a warehouse — facilitates observation and hence logically can deter crime. Likewise, lighting an area when people are out and about not only provides convenience and enhances travel safety, it can (at least in theory) enhance security by facilitating observation. Indeed, by providing people with a sense of security, lighting can increase activity and hence observation and perhaps thereby reduce crime. But marketers have taken this rational application of lighting for security purposes and sold the idea that light itself deters crime; it is not true.  

Lights can’t see, and criminals are not cockroaches. They need light like anyone else. So just lighting someplace all night not only does not deter crime; it can invite and facilitate it. Look at the evidence, as the Department of Justice has, and you will see that unmonitored lighting does not deter crime. One of the worst examples of mindless lighting are our empty K-12 school campuses. Precious education dollars down the drain. School districts turning lights out to save money have found that vandalism drops.  

The Buffalo National River was designated in June as an International Dark Sky Park. I understand this was a several-year project involving the development and implementation of what’s called a lightscape management plan, as well as documenting its sky and developing interpretational programming focused on the night sky resource. Who certifies these spots as dark sky destinations, and what other places in Arkansas would you like to see receive this designation?

The International Dark-Sky Association, our parent organization, sets the standards for and certifies Dark-Sky Parks, Reserves, Dark-Sky Communities, and Urban Sky Parks. The goal is to make natural sky places available to the public, demonstrate responsible lighting practices, and bring attention to the resource and the problem.  

As for other potential locations, I would like to see some of our state parks become certified. The options here are limited because of the scarcity of the qualifying area. Urban Sky Parks, as implied by the name, are not as demanding in terms of the level of light pollution allowed. The public already flocks to star parties at five different state parks that have less-than-perfect skies; these could easily qualify for this new designation [Village Creek, Woolly Hollow, Pinnacle Mountain, Hobbs Conservation area and Lake Fort Smith]. Someday, I hope we will see some Dark-Sky Communities in the Natural State.

Allen Staib
“Buffalo River Dark Sky” staff: (left to right), Bruce McMath, Buffalo River National Park electrician Ricky Hoyt, Buffalo National River Park rangers Casey Johannson and Chris Littlejohn.

What can a well-intentioned — but not scientifically-minded — person do to light responsibly? Like, what do I look for in the hardware store when I’m buying bulbs? How do I tell if the lighting I’m using around my home for security is the right kind or the wrong kind?

First, evaluate what you are trying to light. In most cases — a porch light, for example — you don’t need a lot of light. Swap out your old inefficient incandescent bulb for a soft or warm color (3000 degrees Kelvin or less) LED in the 300- to 650-lumen range, depending on the size of the area. If you are trying to light an area for functional use, like your patio grill, you may need more light, but keep in mind the brighter you make the illuminated area, the darker the surroundings will appear.  

When using brighter lighting (unless it is “architecturally shielded” by being located just under a roof) you should consider using a fully shielded fixture. A fixture is fully shielded if you would not be able to see the source of the light directly when standing level with it; look for fixtures that carry IDA approval. Of course, in some cases, nothing will do but a floodlight, especially in a residential setting. Here up to 1800 lumens or a bit more may be justified. If a bulb is involved, these should be partially shielded. True LEDs aren’t bulbs and are effectively shielded, to the extent a floodlight can be. Whatever the lighting source, floodlights should be aimed downward, at such an angle that none of the light shines upward, or onto neighboring property.  Depending on the purpose, use motion sensors, timers, or switches on your outdoor lighting.  

In summary, keep your decorative, unshielded porch light dim and warm. Shield brighter lights where possible and turn them all off when not needed. It is not complicated. It only requires being aware and caring.  

So, let’s assume I’ve done all that. What can I do to advance the cause beyond my own home?

You can join our local Facebook group to show support. Visit our website to learn more about what ANSA is doing and check on what Stella, the Night-Wise Owl, says about finding dark-sky places in the natural state. We’ll even send you a copy of Robert Togni’s “Guide to Learning the Constellations” for a modest donation.  

If you want to do more, join IDA.  

Beyond that, you can become active by joining our mobilize.io site. 

But, just as important, get out under a natural nighttime sky. Let your soul fly among the stars and contemplate the universe to which we are a rare, perhaps even a unique witness.