Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
24 Jan

Why the Night Sky Matters: The Ramifications of Light Pollution

Carrie and I are lucky enough to have a hot tub in our back yard, overlooking a pretty spectacular ocean and mountain view. We often soak for a while and talk about the day’s activities just before retiring to bed (I sometimes alternate with a quick plunge or two into our unheated pool). Last night we were taking advantage of the break between winter storms to “jacuze” when I noticed that the cloud cover had so dispersed the city lights of L.A. and Santa Monica that it lit up the sky even 20 miles out into Malibu. On an otherwise moonless night, it had become light enough to simulate dusk all over L.A.. Can you imagine the amount of manmade light it takes to have that effect? Of course, that got me thinking about all the ways in which light permeates our lives in ways both good and bad.

These days, mentioning the words “pollution” or “environment” raises hackles in some, perhaps most people. Political blinders go up, knee-jerk responses engage. Support for classically green renewables like wind or solar power usually comes with unequivocal and emotional disdain for any and all variations of nuclear. On the same token, those who question the legitimacy of anthropogenic global warming often display a lack of concern for the effects of fracking, industrial pollution, or rampant use of agricultural pesticides. Now, I’m not wading into that morass, mind you. This isn’t the place for that. I am, however, calling to attention the fact that both (albeit amorphous, roughly defined) groups have a major blind spot: light pollution. And it’s not that they reject it as a problem. It’s that they are simply unaware it even exists (maybe it’s all the bright lights).

So what exactly is light pollution?

Well, it’s not light as in mild, harmless, or barely-there. It’s not gentle pollution, and it’s nothing like “light to moderate drinking.” Light pollution is characterized by excessive amounts of artificial light. Light that shouldn’t be there, light that you can’t escape from. It’s light that fills city streets at night – all night – and extends upward to obscure our view of the stars. It’s the blinding white and blue light streaming from big screen TVs, laptops, and lamps, and it’s the little niggling lights that pepper the interiors of our homes, winking at us from Blu-ray players and gaming consoles and clock radios even as we (try to) sleep.

In other words, light pollution exists inside and outside our homes. It affects both the environment at large and the individual inhabitants within. It is micro and macro. In the modern world it is, for the most part, inescapable.

I won’t delve too deeply into the negative effects of artificial light on human health as it relates to circadian rhythm, because I’ve already covered those. Quickly, though, some of the research:

Night time exposure to blue (artificial) light can suppress melatonin production, thereby disrupting sleep, reducing quality of sleep, throwing off circadian rhythm, and even promoting certain cancers.

Computer light exposure at night affects circadian rhythm and cognitive performance.

Continuous light exposure might hamper our ability to process carbohydrates, particularly in the liver.

According to a large review titled “The Dark Side of Light at Night,” (PDF) shift workers (a proxy for night time light exposure) get more cancer, heart disease, and are more likely to be obese. They also experience great oxidative stress loads and have compromised immune systems. Shift workers might represent the extreme end of nighttime light exposure, but they show the potential negative ramifications of even constant low-level exposure for everyone else.

But besides all the measurable, objective, physiologically-harmful effects of too much artificial light, there are the intangibles. That’s what this post is really about. Who else was lucky enough to spend their childhood summer nights on the roof or in the open field, gazing up at the millions of stars set against the backdrop of eternity? I was, and it’s what I still look forward to most of all about camping. When I sneak away from the fire and catch a break in the canopy, I stop and stare up above at the stars, those same heavenly mysteries that got our ancestors thinking, poking, prodding, and striving for more. Though today I know that they represent far flung galaxies of eons past and that that bluish “star” is actually Venus, a planet covered by volcanoes and rocky deserts – while thirty thousand years ago mankind looked up and concocted wondrous tales of gods and celestial beasts – that knowledge is suddenly meaningless once I begin to gaze. I’m caught up, emotional, dare-I-say “spiritual” – a lot like how our ancestors must have felt when they looked up at night. I’m lost in the limitlessness. I’m a kid again, suddenly struck with the realization of just how small I am and of the extrinsic meaninglessness of it all. Nature, remember, is neutral, and it becomes evident that we create our own meaning – it’s actually intrinsic, it comes from within – and set our own path. It’s all on us, and I’m reminded of this essential fact because of that brief brilliant moment with the stars.

If we allow light pollution to progress unabated, we lose that relationship. Many of us have, for all intents and purposes, already lost it – if we ever had it at all. But at least the opportunity remains. I mean, the stars are still there, if you get the heck out of Dodge. And if you can drag your kid outside city limits to shift his gaze from smart phone upward toward the relatively untouched sky, he might learn something about what it means to be human. Strip away all the luxuries and technology and just stick a modern city dweller in an open meadow in the middle of nowhere in the black of night and direct his or her attention skyward. If only for a moment, he’ll be like Luke Skywalker staring out at the night sky in “A New Hope” (with fewer suns) and thinking of rebel fleets and hyperspace travel.

That brings me to my final beef with light pollution: the extinguishing of a potent source of inspiration for greatness. From the ancients using astronomy to align their superstructures, to Newton drawing on the movement of celestial bodies to formulate basic theories of physics, to poets and authors and other artists (“Starry Night,” anyone?) creating work after a night spent stargazing, we do and have done great things with regular access to unfiltered night skies. I tend to think we have a lot ahead of us, too, if we’d give ourselves the chance. Misappropriation or lack of funding is the oft-cited cause of the US space program’s sorry state, but I feel like a lack of public fervor for all things stellar is at the root of it. People just don’t – or can’t – look up and marvel at the amazing ocular feast residing above anymore, and so they don’t dream of visiting it. Public officials don’t feel pressured to support it (besides, there are far more lucrative things to be doing with our tax money, like subsidizing their friends). Kids don’t seem to dream about becoming astronauts. I dunno about you, but that’s sad to me. The childhood version of Mark Sisson figured there’d be interstellar commercial travel and permanent bases on Mars by 2012. Adult version of Mark Sisson is highly disappointed that there is neither (but he hasn’t quite lost hope).

But we can’t go out and bust street lights with slingshots; we’re not extreme Luddite/Dennis the Menace hybrids. We can, however, make changes to the immediate environment. Our homes and our habits can change. So, if there’s an action item to be derived from this post, I guess it’s this: turn off the lights, go outside, preferably somewhere remote, look up, and take it all in. Take your kids with you. Foster the innate human obsession with the stars. Watch young eyes light up and mind-expanding thoughts of eternity and possibility germinate in growing brains. Then, set them loose and see where they go and what they do. I bet it’ll be pretty good.

Who else loves – nay, needs – the stars? Who else imagines how great things would be if we could actually step outside our living quarters, look up, and see the galaxies laid out before us in excruciating detail? Who else wishes that stargazing was no longer the strict province of campers and hunters and country-living? I realize that progress is inevitable and civilization butts heads with nature, but there’s got to be a better way.


Chime in the comment section. Let everyone hear about your love for the stars. And if your relationship with the cosmos has grown stale (or you’re a stargazing virgin), then get out and see them (so you know what we’re all blabbering about)!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Stikky Night Skies:

    Fun for learning constellations at any age. Check out the sample pages to learn Orion.

    jr wrote on January 24th, 2012
  2. More and more people are choosing to live full-time in recreational vehicles traveling around this great country of ours. Even whole families are doing this while homeschooling their kids. Living this way makes you very aware of all those little lights using up your limited energy plus it makes stargazing and forest bathing MUCH easier. Find a way to do this, people.

    Linda Sand wrote on January 24th, 2012
    • That’s what I’m talking about! Waiting for the kids to be off on their own & then we’ll be hitting the road full-time.

      lostAnnfound wrote on January 24th, 2012
    • You’ve got my vote! Now, if I can only convince my husband after he retires, too…..

      Meanwhile, he lives in our rural home year round in the midst of a 10,000 acre forest. No lights. No near neighbors. Lots of wild life. All the stars he cares to see. I am only there part of the year and in the very light polluted city the rest of the year. So, he tends to take the stars for granted and I don’t.

      rrustad wrote on January 24th, 2012
  3. Many songbirds migrate at night and all the excess light messes them up.

    Nicky wrote on January 24th, 2012
  4. I moved out of a large metropolitan area last June to a small town of 7,000 in Western North Carolina. One of the biggest, most delightful surprises is how many stars I can see on a clear night — and I live in town!

    I completely agree with Mark’s sentiments. Seeing the stars at night, at will, is bringing me closer to the nature I moved here to meet again.

    Marsha Stopa wrote on January 24th, 2012
  5. The most brilliant night sky I have ever seen was in northern Wisconsin in the fall. It was so bitterly cold camping by the lake, but the total lack of any artificial light, the crystal clear night sky, and the reflection of the stars on the lake, honestly it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I thank God every night for his generosity in sharing his awesome creation with us.

    Kim wrote on January 24th, 2012
  6. my sister and I used to fantasize about how we could break this night lamp that stood outside and across the street from our bedroom window. It was a very annoying bright orange light with a buzz sound and I didn’t get a good night’s sleep until I moved to the front room of the house…

    I loved living in Utah later when you could look up at the night sky and see the milky way, and my Internet boyfriend at one time didn’t believe me that you could see the milky way with the naked eye – as he had never seen it in his homeland, he later became my husband and boy did he have to eat his words when he came to Utah for the first time and saw the beautiful night sky there… I really miss it, and I miss the meteor showers they have every year in August… besides my family, i miss the stars the most.

    (expat living in the netherlands)

    melissa daams wrote on January 24th, 2012
  7. It’s been more than a few months since I have looked up at the sky at night and just thought and talked about the stars and how amazing life is. That was on Lake Michigan back in the late summer.

    It would be such a privilege to be able to enjoy the stars on a near nightly basis when the clouds don’t cover them.

    I may be living in Chicago for the Summer… depending on where I am it may be possible to look up at the stars at night over Lake Michigan. Oh how kick ass that would be!

    Primal Toad wrote on January 24th, 2012
  8. My 18 year-old daughter just pointed out Orion’s belt a couple of nights ago; could just barely make it out from all the street lights. Then she said “We didn’t go camping in our favorite campground in Vermont last year where we can see all the stars & the Milky Way”. Definitely going back in August – love to watch the Perseid meteor shower from there – no lights around for miles. What a thrilling sight!

    lostAnnfound wrote on January 24th, 2012
  9. It seems we primals are romantics at heart.

    T Hut wrote on January 24th, 2012
  10. I live in San Diego. Several months ago, we can a black out that shut off power to the entire area for most of the night.

    It was incredible! We felt more connected to nature and the universe. We could see the beauty of the night sky! It was spiritual….and very very romantic :)

    Jett Brenner wrote on January 24th, 2012
  11. My husband IM’d me earlier today to say we are supposed to be able to see the Northern Lights tonight somehow! It is cloudy right now – hope it clears up. We live in a fairly rural area and we love just watching the night sky!

    MusicMama wrote on January 24th, 2012
  12. (maybe someone posted about this already but…) What happens to people who live in very high latitudes (like Alaska, Scandinavia) where half of the year has WAY too much light? Are there increased health effects for these people or have they just basically figured out ways to block out light for half of the year?

    jenna wrote on January 24th, 2012
  13. That reddish “star” is not the planet Venus. It’s the planet Mars. Venus is often the brightest starlike object in the night sky and appears in the west shortly after sunset or in the east shortly before sunrise. It is currently very visible in the west after the sun sets–even visible in the city.

    And truly, few things are as amazing as a cloudless night sky far away from city lights. Ever seen a meteor shower in the dark of the country? I recommend the Leonids meteor shower each November, though the Perseids are more accessible in the warmer month of August.

    Stan the Man wrote on January 24th, 2012
  14. Have you read about the new documentary coming out about this very topic? What you’re saying is right on par with the trailer my husband and I just watched a few days ago. Should be interesting!

    Kara wrote on January 24th, 2012
  15. How interesting that Aaron just wrote about the outrageous night lights in Aspen for the Winter X Games.
    At least they are temporary.

    Linda wrote on January 24th, 2012
  16. Oh a topic dear to my heart!

    My backyard used to be a great place to star gaze with no light interference. Today that is not the case because city-folk (sorry) move to the country and are scared so they leave their porch lights only 24/7.

    One of my favorite things I have done with my grandsons is a trek down to Lake Michigan at midnight (with our night eyes – no flashlights). We walk that path to the lake many times during the day from camp but at night – totally different event.

    It was always planned on an evening when the sky was clear and usually in August when the stars were burning across the sky.

    Oh how I miss the blackened back yard and those camping trips with my boys/grandsons.

    Pam wrote on January 24th, 2012
    • Totally agree about the 24/7 porch lights and in my neighborhood
      they don’t have just one but as high as three lights on all the time. Have lived here for over 40 years and when I sleep outside in summer it progressively has ruined my star gazing.

      If you feel you must have a light, why not at the very least put in a motion detector?

      Dragonfly wrote on January 24th, 2012
  17. My husband and I worked together on merchant ships in the 80’s, (he still does), and our favorite time of the day was dusk, where we were on the bridge, chatting about the day as the tropical sun plumeted out of the sky and Pete used his sextant to “shoot” 3or 4 stars while he could still see the horizon, then calculate our position while having a cup of tea (it was all double Dutch to me). Out in the Pacific the night sky was immense. These days mariners simply use Gps and those ancient means of navigation are nearly lost.
    We have always lived in the bush, down here in Australia, and I used to rug up my Japanese exchange students from Tokyo, and lie them on a mattress in the house paddock, to gaze at the stars. They would cry tears of wonder as they had never seen it.

    Heather wrote on January 24th, 2012
  18. Tempted to print this out and give to my neighbor. I have been meaning for months, since they moved in to tell them to try to remember to turn off their outside light. It shines right into our bedroom and shades can’t block it well. Now that there is snow (yay it finally snowed in Calif.) the light reflects and is brighter yet. Every morning I say ” I am going to leave them a note”. not only is it bright while trying to sleep but we live up in a canyon with few homes and no street lights so it gets dark and the stars are bright but with that light….. it isn’t quite as brilliant. I feel like I live in a city neighborhood with street lights. I live in the canyon to stay away from that. You just motivated me to go meet my new neighbor and ask them politely, “could you please turn your outside light off when you don’t need it?”

    Colleen wrote on January 24th, 2012
    • You go!

      rrustad wrote on January 24th, 2012
  19. living in the NYC area…light pollution is overwhelming. I recall my trips to the mountains of Vermont and seeing so many shooting stars that are invisible here. I often marvel that our sun is a nearby star and that our moon an nearby planet.

    rik wrote on January 24th, 2012
  20. ::wistful sigh::

    whitney wrote on January 24th, 2012
  21. I’ve already shared several of my night sky (inspired) experiences in replies, so this post addresses light pollution.

    Mark’s books had already motivated me to download the Flux program to my computer. That one simple change has made a big difference to my light exposure at night. Now I am motivated to make more changes.

    I am an information junkie. I am retired and still spend hours and hours online, searching data bases, watching educational TV, etc. everyday – all of which tends to make me a night owl if I’m not careful.

    My commitment as of now is to improve my sleep hygiene by incorporating more night time light strategies; going to bed earlier; and, waking naturally with the sunrise, even if it means getting black out curtains and a sunrise alarm for my city house.

    rrustad wrote on January 24th, 2012
  22. I’ve spent my whole life in big cities so I don’t have many memories of being outside with no light pollution. I recently camped across the Southwest and I noted how far you have to travel to truly get away from the lights. There’s a general store at the Grand Canyon (North Rim) and they kept the outside lights on ALL night. It was like a Christmas tree glowing in the distance. We fared much better at Curecanti National Park doing some primitive camping.

    Jen wrote on January 24th, 2012
  23. Look up tonight and you might see the aurora borealis quite far into the lower latitudes, always a good show.

    IvyBlue wrote on January 24th, 2012
  24. I was so lucky to spend my childhood in an area with no light pollution in northern MI (I was always fascinated with the weird, orange perma-dusk at my grandparents’ house in Metro Detroit). When I go back to visit, I’m amazed and taken aback at how many stars I can see!

    I have to admit that I do have frequent fantasies of shooting out the streetlight, opposite my front yard, Dennis The Menace style;)

    Erin wrote on January 24th, 2012
    • Living in Metro Detroit myself, I also have to confess to fantasies about shooting out the street light directly across the street. I lived under open night skies with no lights for almost 30 years before coming to the city recently.

      Challenges my sense of gratitude, but I try to be grateful for the extra security and just opt for better curtains. There are places in Detroit proper without any street lights – they are constantly shot out – and a high crime rate. So, its all relative I guess….

      With the current economic status being so poor here, I don’t feel optimistic about a campaign to have night sky friendly street lights installed – but who knows….

      rrustad wrote on January 24th, 2012
  25. Just thought I’d throw this in … I worked way too many years of *rotating* shift work, and one of the main things it did was mess up my gut. I don’t know if the sleep loss led to gut problems, or if the gut problems were independent of sleep loss and due to the constantly changing meal times (including in the wee hours every other week) … or due to the stress … or due to the crappy food … but I do know digestive problems are one of the most common complaints of shift workers. My point is that there is a lot of out-of-whack very stressful stuff happening with shift work besides light exposure, so you can’t be sure it was the light pollution that caused or contributed to the health problems mentioned.

    And (to switch topics) I LOVE sleeping in a completely dark and silent room. Some part of me just completely relaxes; it’s like that darkness and silence is sending an irresistible signal – “time to rest”. It almost feels sacred.

    Angel wrote on January 24th, 2012
  26. Growing up in Manitoba country, star-gazing was a regular occurrence. For a kid with an overactive imagination, that’s a beautiful thing! It’s really weird at my parents’ house because when you’re standing in the yard looking up, you can marvel at the night sky, but when you look out toward the road, you can see the glow of other towns and cities in the distance. You can even identify which town is which by the strength of the glow in the sky. Prairie living for ya.

    When I moved to Winnipeg at age 18, I just couldn’t get over the fact that you couldn’t see the stars. It was depressing. The whole world becomes very small. It’s one of the reasons I’m glad I moved to a village after graduation. I guess I just need that constant in-your-face reminder that nature is awesome and nothing man-made can come close. Plus I get sick of concrete pretty fast!

    Caleigh wrote on January 24th, 2012
  27. That feeling of being small and wanting to understand the large universe we live in that I got looking at the stars is what made me into a scientist. Now I ended up looking at small things, but that is what got me wondering about how things work. It is crazy that I didn’t even get to see the milky way until college because of light pollution :( If you wanna see some awesome stars, go to a field in Wyoming. Not much light pollution there :)

    Stephanie wrote on January 24th, 2012
  28. Great timing! We were just in Tahoe and had a wonderful, unplanned reconnection with the stars one evening. We live in the Bay area, so we have our fair share of light pollution. We can see stars, but apparently only the brightest ones. We slipped out of our Tahoe cabin one night for a quick walk and literally gasped when we glanced up at the evening sky. It was quite literally an overwhelming feeling to see the sky burning with so many stars. It seriously took me a few minutes to comprehend the enormity of what I was seeing and what it all means. And, I didn’t realize until that moment, how long it had been since I had seen the night sky looking like that (probably more than a decade). I agree, we are missing something special. Seeing the vastness of the universe represented by an infinite array of twinkling stars reminds you of how small we are in the overall scheme of things. It puts everything into much-needed perspective. The sad thing is that I think it has so slowly slipped away that very few people even take notice of its absence.

    Thomas wrote on January 24th, 2012
  29. We were lucky to live at 9000 feet in a rural area for several years – talk about bright stars, with no light pollution, and not too much atmosphere, either! Beautiful, and it’s fun to be able to pick out even the dimmer constellations.

    Danielle wrote on January 24th, 2012
  30. Help do something about it:

    Jon wrote on January 24th, 2012
  31. I just got back from a vacation in Tanzania where I climbed Kilimanjaro. Standing high up with no artificial light nearby and looking up on the night sky is amazing! You see so many more stars from up there. I wish I one day can see the night sky from space :)

    Sara wrote on January 24th, 2012
  32. Mark, your articles are always great but this one was like a shot through the heart! Dreaming under the stars, about the stars, sure seems the very essence of primal living in the modern world to me. THANK YOU for writing this!

    Gina wrote on January 24th, 2012
  33. I’m fortunate enough to have the best of both worlds so to speak. we only live about 15 min out of town but have very little light pollution. If the neighbors remember to turn off their garage light I can see the stars from my bed. It does remind me of how small we are, this tiny rock in this great big universe.

    bbuddha wrote on January 24th, 2012
  34. We live on 5 acres in the “country”, and all of our neighbors have 5 or more acres, so we get a decent night sky. LOVE IT! Last summer I’d gather the kids after dinner, we’d all get our pajamas on, and walk around the property. We called it our “pajama walks”. Unfortunately, their bedtimes were earlier than sunset, and last summer at ages 2 & 4, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice their sleep. Plus, we have coyotes that roam around once the sun goes down, so we have to be careful. This spring I’m hoping they’ll get a chance to see the night sky, now that they’re a little older and if the weather cooperates, springtime in upstate NY can still be dark before their bedtimes. It won’t be as good as around MY bedtime, but a start anyway. Maybe we’ll let the 5 year old stay up some nights when it’s supposed to be clear out. He made it to midnight on New Year’s after all. Both my boys have a natural love of nature already. By the way Mark, the 5 year old wants to do something “with outer space” for his kindergarten science fair project! The only problem is, he’s supposed to do some kind of experiment, not just research, and I have no ideas. Anyone have any ideas? Remember, he’s 5, and I want him to do most of the work. The only thing I could think of was somehow charting the waxing and waning of the moon. Maybe he could do something on light pollution. I could drive him into the city and he could take pics of lights and describe how the sky looks vs at our house and even more remote areas. What do you all think? Thanks, and great post Mark!

    LizS wrote on January 24th, 2012
  35. This is a great observation on a subject that affects our entire society, not just our personal health. What could be a more primal subject? There is the International Dark Sky Association that helps provide support for restoration and preservation of dark skies. Living in Austin (a highly-polluted sky) and traveling across west Texas provides a amazingly stark contrast between what we have now in most cities and what we used to have before all our “progress.” Consider looking into dark sky ordinance support for your community.

    Paul D wrote on January 24th, 2012
  36. Well said, Mark. My DH and I are planning to eventually move somewhere in the country or just to a small community. I miss the stars, the quiet stillness of winter, listening to the myriad seasonal sounds in nature, the burbling of the water. For a girl who grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and walked down to the river to just dream, living in the city takes its toll. It isn’t just the lights but also the constant hum beneath the surface, like traffic, horns, neighbors, etc.

    Sandra wrote on January 24th, 2012
  37. FYI, my son always dreamed of becoming an astronaut! Of course, visiting Kennedy Space Center and watching Carl Sagan films may have had something to do w/ that. Either way, I am grateful that he has always been interested in the stars!

    jao73 wrote on January 24th, 2012
  38. I’m lucky, here in Telluride, CO the high elevation and remote location make for an unbelievable night sky! I’ll lay on my deck for hours nearly every night just to admire the natural beauty.

    Mountain Caveman wrote on January 24th, 2012
  39. I love the deep night sky. We can only see it well when we camp, despite living in a smallish town rather than a city. What a shame!

    The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky proclaims the work of His hands. Ps. 19:1

    mommaofmany wrote on January 24th, 2012
  40. Love the paragraph about light’s impact on the inspiration for greatness….so true!!!

    Sarah wrote on January 24th, 2012

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