Guest Columnist James D. Lowenthal: Impact of light pollution

  • CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/ANDREA BUGBEE CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/ANDREA BUGBEE

Published: 8/1/2021 8:15:09 PM

Recently I found a dead bird, a yellow-throated vireo, on the sidewalk in downtown Northampton. About 40% of bird species including vireos migrate, and about 80% of those migrate at night, many using the stars to navigate. An estimated 100 million to 1 billion birds die in the U.S. each year due to light pollution. We can’t know for sure, but chances are the vireo died after getting confused by bright city lights while it was migrating north from Central or South America.

Light pollution harms practically every species that’s been studied so far, not just birds but insects, fish, amphibians and mammals — including humans. A new major report to the United Nations called “Dark & Quiet Skies” (disclosure: I’m a co-author) summarizes the scientific consensus that artificial light at night causes suppression of melatonin and sleep disruption and is linked to elevated rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity, and depression.

There’s a social justice aspect to light pollution: a study last year found that people of color in the U.S. are more likely than others to live under bright surveillance lights that negatively affect their health and quality of life while failing to provide the security that more lights promise. It may seem counter-intuitive, but years of scientific studies have failed to prove any link between safety from crime and outdoor lighting. More lights do not keep us safer from crime.

Here in Northampton and Massachusetts, there’s growing recognition of the serious problems caused by light pollution. The city’s Energy and Sustainability Commission in January unanimously endorsed the Five Principles of Responsible Outdoor Lighting developed jointly by the Illuminating Engineering Society and the International Dark-Sky Association; and the City Council last year unanimously passed a resolution endorsing the “Dark Sky Bill” pending in the state legislature — it’s also co-sponsored by State Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa. The Dark Sky Bill would enact common-sense measures for state- and city-funded projects such as requiring light to be down-facing only, minimize harmful blue light, and be no brighter than necessary. But light pollution continues to grow here in the Connecticut River Valley.

Three major public projects now stand to make the problem even worse, unless plans can be improved. In downtown Northampton, the Roundhouse Parking Lot is being rebuilt this summer, with a new pollinator garden to extend the existing one nextdoor in Pulaski Park. Unfortunately the city’s current plan is to blast the lot and the new garden all night long with lights even brighter than the lights in the park — which are already 10 times brighter than in some parks in New York City, and which exceed the maximum level of blue light recommended by the IDA and the American Medical Association. Residents of the apartments at 37 South St. and McDonald House will all suffer, as will the pollinating insects we’re trying to attract with the gardens in the first place.

Nearby, the Gare Parking Garage has lights 10 times brighter than recommended by the IES and the US Department of Energy. They shine through the garage’s big windows into the windows of neighboring houses and up into the sky, where they do no good but do cause sky glow, blotting out the stars and the Milky Way. The city plans to replace the lights with new LEDs — that are just as bright and just as poorly shielded against glare and light trespass. That would be a tragic missed opportunity to save energy, cut harmful light pollution, and improve the quality of life for neighbors including visitors to Patria restaurant and other downtown businesses.

Perhaps the most harmful project, though, is the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s plan for lighting at the new roundabout at Damon Road, Route 9, and I-91. MassDOT plans to install 32 LED lights of 144 Watts each, brighter and with worse glare than the streetlights in downtown. The total number of lumens planned is 435,580, the equivalent of packing over 200 of Northampton’s streetlights into an area smaller than downtown. The roundabout — which has had zero serious accidents at night during the last year despite being almost completely unlit — will be lit up like the Las Vegas strip. Residents in the historic neighborhood next to the roundabout should plan now to start losing sleep. Unfortunately, the fish, birds, amphibians, mammals, and insects that depend on a dark night as part of their delicate riparian ecosystem along the Connecticut River will suffer too.

The lighting for all three projects is being justified as necessary “for safety” — but with scant evidence to support that need, and plenty of evidence that the resulting glare and excess lighting will cause harm to wildlife, public health, and even the public safety it was intended to safeguard: glare only reduces visibility, never improves it.

The citizen group Northampton City Lights is in communication with the city and with MassDOT about all three of those projects to try to implement best lighting practices and limit the harm, and our state legislators are on board with our efforts, but all three projects are currently on track to proceed with their excessive plans.

If you love the stars, if you care about wildlife and public health and social justice, if you want to save energy while enhancing the beauty and safety of our historic downtown and neighborhoods, please: turn off your own outdoor lights when they’re not needed; write to Mayor Narkewicz, State Sen. Jo Comerford, and State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and share your concerns and your thanks for their support; and visit NorthamptonCityLights.org to learn more.

James D. Lowenthal is a Mary Elizabeth Moses Professor and chair of the astronomy department at Smith College.


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