Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 12, 2012

Dark green is the color of astronomy

by Richard Kuschell
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---- — How does astronomy relate to the green movement? As president of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society (gtastro.org), I've been asked this question more than once. The answer: It's as simple as night and day. What's more important to life than night and day? Lose one and disaster looms. Ask the dinosaurs. Those that survived the impact 65 million years ago were doomed. Dust and smoke thrown high into the atmosphere reduced the light hitting Earth causing massive plant die offs and starvation.

Light pollution is bad for astronomy. Our charter members note the significant increase in Traverse City's sky glow over the last 30 years. Night pictures from space show Michigan's "mitt" outlined by light. Traverse City is easy to spot. Well over half of the world's population never sees the stars. It's too bright. Other than degrading the night sky, how does the not-so-dark night sky affect us and our environment?

Visit Darksky.com to learn more. Briefly, they cite low production of melatonin, leading to immune system disorders such as increased risk of cancer, type II diabetes and heart disease. The body produces melatonin only when it's dark. Studies linked third-shift workers with increased health risks. Over illumination contributes to increase stress, headaches, decreased sex drive, and anxiety. A 2012 American Medical Association report entitled "Light Pollution: Adverse Effects of Nighttime Lighting" substantiates and adds to these findings.

In the greater animal kingdom light pollution affects mating, migration, and predation behavior. Birds, bats, and moths are confused by light. They'll circle a light without stopping and die from exhaustion. Sea turtle hatchlings get confused and lose track of where the sea is. Frogs stop mating. Animals that communicate by light, such as fireflies and glow worms, are affected, reducing their viability. Other nocturnal species are also negatively influenced. In England 10,000 robins sing at a false dawn that's been created by artificial lights.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggests there is a connection in the dramatic reduction of bird populations and light pollution.

Reducing pollution can be very expensive. Carbon monoxide is an example. It may take lots of money, federal laws, worldwide cooperation, and lifestyle changes to curtail the huge amounts we're pouring into the air.

Limiting light pollution is relatively easy and cheap. Turn off the lights, install a timer, change the bulb to one that's less offensive, shield bare bulbs, and use directional lighting. Simple stuff but it helps. Cutting electrical usage saves money, natural resources, and reduces the amount of pollutants associated with creating electricity; coal mine waste, less carbon monoxide emitted at the generating plant, less nuclear waste, etc.

Thanks to people like Grand Traverse Astronomical Society member and Northwestern Michigan College's Rogers Observatory Director Professor Jerry Dobek and others, local ordinances have been passed to reduce light pollution.

Enforcement is another problem, but the laws are on the books.

Green is the last color the eye can distinguish before night turns everything to shades of grey.

About the author: Richard Kuschell is president of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society.

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