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Credit: RAB Lighting
685 words / 3-minute read
Few issues make for more unpleasant relations between neighbors like outdoor lighting disputes. On one side of the street, a homeowner blasts light into the darkness beyond. On the other side, a neighbor spends another sleepless night as that light floods into a bedroom. They may exchange some angry words. Responses sometimes escalate to the level of civil lawsuits.
Can neighbors stop these problems before they ever start? And can lighting actually promote neighborliness? Here, we briefly examine why conflicts arise, how the careless application of lighting contributes, and ways property owners can tread more lightly on those around them.
Why people light — and why they fight
People have plenty of good reasons to light their property at night, whether for aesthetics or safety. Yet outdoor light at night is often used indiscriminately. Homeowners may prefer extensive lighting of architectural details and landscaping. Some believe that brightly lighting outdoor spaces deters criminal behavior. Others don't realize the impacts of their lighting on neighbors, having added lights one by one over many years. A few assert authority to light their property as they please, a right that supersedes their neighbors' right to the peaceful enjoyment of their properties.
In rural places where large distances separate homes, this may not be much of an issue. But in higher-density settings like suburbs, there isn't much of a buffer or setback between and among homes. In city centers, where commercial and residential land uses commingle, there may be no separation.
Most neighbor disputes involve light trespass, a condition in which light emitted on one property falls on another. Often the trespass is unintentional. The root of the problem is a lack of mindfulness about the responsibilities neighbors have to one another. Simple consideration of the "off-site impacts" of lighting is usually enough to prevent quarrels before they start.
Think of others when lighting
"Good-neighbor lighting" respects property rights and prevents disagreements from the start. For new installations, think about where light goes after leaving fixtures where you're considering placing them. What message does it send? Is the light too bright? Remember color, too; in many parts of the world, people consider blue-rich white light harsh.
And don't forget that there may be certain legal requirements in your jurisdiction. New lighting installations, and even some replacements, may need municipal permits. Sometimes those installations require professional installation, such as by certified electricians.
There are many ways to address neighbor complaints after installing lighting on your property. Adding shielding to lights may be enough to prevent light trespass. In other cases, adjusting the orientation of fixtures is enough. Installing timers or motion-sensing switches can resolve complaints about lighting that is on all night.
Each of these interventions allows the property owner to continue using the lighting as desired. In other cases, on further reflection, property owners may decide the offending lighting isn't necessary. Simple removal of an unneeded fixture can solve the problem.
Keep it civil
When discord arises, don't lose your cool. Try to keep relations friendly and constructive. No one wants to force an issue to come before a court. Bear in mind that many lighting feuds involve grievances well beyond actual lighting concerns.
The key is to act in good faith. Take neighbor complaints seriously and try to make requested changes. Consider how you would feel if a neighbor's light intruded into your home every night. We all want to live in safe communities where people act with some consideration toward each other. The way we light our exterior spaces at night is no exception.
As urbanization continues around the world, people find themselves living closer to others than ever before. High-density residential situations tend to exacerbate conflicts and disagreements. But where outdoor lighting is concerned, these outcomes aren't inevitable.
When done right, residential lighting can be a win-win prospect. But to do that, we have to think in different ways about how we approach the issue in general.
Neighbor disputes about lighting can be difficult to navigate, but we can help. Contact us today.
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Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO
1,215 words / 5-minute read
My friend, Dr. Al Grauer, is an astronomer with the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona. The project aims to find many of the thousands of small asteroids that may one day collide with our planet. It relies on convenient access to dark night skies to see these faint interlopers.
As part of his work, Al became interested in what factors contribute to the brightness of the night sky. In turn, that determines how sensitive the Survey is. It's therefore important to understand those factors to know how effective the Survey can be at achieving its mission.
In studying this subject, Al made an observation that has stuck with me ever since I first heard him say it: "The natural night sky is alive with its own light." To understand the significance of dark skies and what we stand to lose to light pollution, Al argues, we need to understand the night sky as nature alone influences it.
Here, we review those sources and what we know about them. The results are important in framing what we mean when we talk about "dark skies".
As night falls
A remarkable transformation happens each day on Earth. Day becomes night and night becomes day again with a perfect predictability. This 24-hour, light-dark-light-dark cycle is the basis for one of the most basic of all biological rhythms. It also sets up a convenient way to record the passage of time.
Each day, the main event begins as the sun sets and the transition to night begins. From sunset until the onset of nighttime darkness, the brightness of the night sky decreases by about one million times. Once the Sun is about 18 degrees below the horizon, its direct light misses the top of the atmosphere and the observer is fully immersed in the Earth's shadow. This is "night".
The three phases of twilight from sunset to night. Graphic by T.W. Carlson, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Until that time, direct or scattered sunlight determines the brightness of the sky in any direction. As that light fades away, the stars begin to appear. After some time the sky gets no darker until several hours later as morning approaches. Then the process repeats, but in reverse order.
Sources of natural light in the night sky
Say you're outside at night in the most remote corner of the world. What would you see in the sky at night?
Absent light pollution, the sky is not black at night from anywhere on Earth. It's not even completely black as seen from space. Instead, natural light sources brighten the night sky in an understandable way. Once we know what those sources are, we can figure out how much light they contribute.
There are two main sources of natural light that we see in the night sky. One kind originates in our own atmosphere. The main component, called "airglow", originates over 100 kilometers overhead. In the upper atmosphere, atoms and molecules interact with each other in ways that causes the emission of light. This light is always present, but it can vary in brightness and distribution over minutes to hours.
Layers of airglow in the Earth's atmosphere seen from low orbit. The colors come from neutral sodium (yellow; 80-100 km) and oxygen (green, 100 km; and red, 200-300 km) atoms. NASA photo ISS042-E-037847, made by European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. Public domain.
Toward the Earth's poles, near where its magnetic field emerges from inside our planet, a different effect can be seen. This is the "aurora". Energetic particles from the outer atmosphere of the Sun interact with the Earth's magnetic field. The resulting light is often very bright and seen as shimmering curtains of bright green and pink known as the Northern or Southern Lights.
The other source of natural light can be called "astronomical" and refers to light originating above our atmosphere. The most familiar variety is moonlight, which varies in brightness throughout the 29-day cycle of lunar phases. At its brightest, the Moon is still vastly fainter than most artificial light sources.
Some astronomical light comes from within the Solar System. Dust shed by comets and colliding asteroids fills space near the inner planets. The dust scatters sunlight toward us, lighting up the twilight and night sky as a ghostly, cone-shaped glow called the zodiacal light.
Fainter light sources are further away still. Masses of stars in our Milky Way blend together in the familiar glowing clouds seen from dark-sky sites. Dust elsewhere in our galaxy scatters starlight toward us. Even distant galaxies themselves contribute a tiny amount of light to our night skies.
What light pollution adds
Putting together all these sources, one comes up with a number that represents the typical brightness of the natural night sky. That represents a point of comparison for describing a light polluted night sky. Calling that amount of light one "unit" allows us to describe city skies in multiples. Rural areas might be around 2-5 units in brightness. The most light-polluted cities can exceed 1,000 units.
Light pollution isn't very much like those natural sources. Its spectrum often looks very different. When artificial light is directed into the night sky, it scatters in the atmosphere and forms "skyglow". This is the washed-out appearance of the night sky familiar to city dwellers that makes the stars difficult to see. Because bluer colors of light scatter more in the atmosphere, white light in particular makes this problem worse.
It also contributes to light received on the ground, which can be harmful to wildlife. Biology is tuned to natural brightnesses and rhythms like the lunar cycle. Some species, like the dung beetle, use the night sky to navigate. Others need nighttime darkness to avoid predators and find both food and mates.
Setting all that aside, skyglow robs us of our heritage as humans. The night sky is one of the few things that all humans share in common. For thousands of years it inspired great and enduring works of art, music and literature. Still today, seeing the Milky Way at night evokes a sense of awe and wonder. But now, more than ever, many people can no longer see the Milky Way from where they live.
Protecting an important resource
The Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum once said "In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." He emphasized the importance of understanding and learning from nature as the keys to protecting it.
The night sky at night is not perfectly devoid of light, like a dark canvas waiting for paint. Rather, as Al Grauer puts it, it's alive with its own light. Besides benefitting the ecology, natural darkness is worth preserving for its own values. Understanding that darkness to be imperfect establishes an important frame of reference.
What is "darkness"? And where does "night" begin and end? These questions still lack definitive answers. It may be that there are only literal shades of gray contributed by both natural and artificial light at night. The absolutes of light and dark we imagine may not be so absolute after all.
Effective conservation the resource of the night benefits from deep understanding and experience. We can contribute both to the pursuit your own dark-sky goals. Contact us today to find out how we can help.
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750 words / 3-minute read
People pursue dark skies for many reasons. For some, it's about protecting the nighttime environment for wildlife. For others, saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is important. But in recent years, dark skies has come to mean something else important to many people: their way of earning a living.
"Astrotourism" is an unfamiliar word to many because the idea behind it is still new. It is an unusual type of tourism in which people travel to dark locations to view and enjoy the night sky. Along with the rise of the dark-sky movement in general, astrotourism is quickly gaining an audience. Consider some of these news headlines of the past year:
The Amazing Race To Space: Why ‘Astrotourism’ Is The Current Buzz Word For The Travel Industry
Seeing the Stars: Small Towns and Rural Parks Pursue Dark Sky Goals
Dark skies offer a new travel frontier, and perspective in our own dark days
Astro-Tourism is the Next Big Travel Trend
Dark sky tourism is on the rise across the U.S.
A dark-sky adventure awaits
What is so appealing about this new kind of 'adventure tourism'? For many, it is the chance to experience something brand new to them, particularly those who live in light-polluted cities. Astrotourism means a quiet night under the stars, reconnecting with nature. It stokes a sense of curiosity about the universe, and brings participants closer to the sights and sounds of the natural night.
It's also big business. According to a 2019 study, one dark-sky region in the western U.S. alone may see astroutourism revenues of nearly $6 billion in the 2020s. In other places, it is such a new idea that no one can yet estimate its value. But many agree that astrotourism is a growth industry.
Nighttime tourism has an outsized economic impact compared to other, more traditional forms of tourism. Unlike most tourists, astrotourists can't simply "drive through" dark skies in a day. The nature of their activity requires an overnight stay. This creates opportunities for other businesses, such as resorts and restaurants, to add value to their visits. And it complements daytime tourism in traditional venues like national parks, with the reminder that "Half The Park Is After Dark".
Fair tourism development for a post-COVID world
As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to curtail plans for many people, they look ahead to resuming their travels. Tourism professionals expect that post-COVID tourists will prefer new, exciting and unconventional experiences. Some will find that astrotourism fits the bill nicely, and they are willing to spend big to visit the world's darker places.
But there are concerns about how to develop this industry in a way that is fair and sustainable. Because astrotourism focuses on rural and often underdeveloped places, it is crucial to include locals in tourism enterprises. This is especially true in places where the local economy was based on extractive activities in the past. As industries such as mining and logging leave, locals are left with many fewer opportunities to earn a good living.
We already have some examples of success. For instance, native people operate lodges in the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park of South Africa, which the International Dark-Sky Associated designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2019. Their revenues are making a difference in the nearby ‡Khomani San and Mier communities. Done right, this outcome is a win-win proposition for locals and tourists alike.
Keeping skies dark for tourists of the future
At the same time, this sense of endless economic promise is balanced by a need to protect the resource that tourists come to see. The development of astrotourism requires infrastructure to cater to tourists' needs. That means new hotels, restaurants, and other supporting businesses, which in turn means new outdoor lighting.
A key challenge is creating this infrastructure while avoiding significant, new light pollution. But this problem is at least solved in part already. We have new evidence that dark-sky designations may reduce light pollution in certain regions, even as astrotourism grows. Modern outdoor lighting best practices also offer enhanced educational elements for visitors. They can see examples of good lighting firsthand, while astrotourism operators can explain how that lighting helps preserve dark skies.
Will 2022 be astrotourism's big year? While no one yet knows the answer, there are good signs that it will be is best year so far. There are many ways that people and organizations can become involved in this emerging tourism sector. We can offer advice to places seeking dark-sky certifications, or help prospective astrotourism companies launch their businesses to the stars. Contact us today to find out how.
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793 words / 3-minute read
For many people, holidays — whether that’s Christmas, Ramadan, Diwali or others — are a magical time of year. We gather with family and friends, celebrate religious traditions, and enjoy tidings of the season. Holidays are often marked with festive displays of outdoor lighting. In traditions with holidays near the winter solstice, these displays bring the joy of light to the darkness of mid-winter. But are holiday light displays light pollution, and should they concern us?
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811 words / 3-minute read
When you hear the phrase "dark skies", which thoughts and images come to mind? A night so dark that the stars are too many to count? The soft light of the Milky Way overhead? A sense of peace or serenity? Feelings of remoteness or isolation, wonder or awe? Maybe it's all of those things.
The movement to protect the night sky from light pollution began in the 1970s. In those early days, it was firmly centered in the astronomy community. Even the name "dark skies" evokes astronomy and the cosmos. Organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association were born in reaction to the loss of the night.
But the degradation of the night sky by human activities started far earlier. People noticed the stars disappearing soon after the introduction of gas lighting in the early 19th century. Astronomers began to leave cities and relocated their observatories to the countryside. The phenomenon ramped up quickly after 1900 due to the widespread introduction of electric lighting.
Meanwhile, people began to notice that the situation was also beginning to change on the ground. Consider this observation published by the journal Science in 1887:
"Some disadvantage or evil appears to be attendant upon every invention, and the electric light is not an exception in this respect. In this city they have been placed in positions with a view of illuminating the buildings, and a fine and striking effect is produced. At the same time, a species of spider has discovered that game is plentiful in their vicinity, and that he can ply his craft both day and night. In consequence, their webs are so thick and numerous that portions of the architectural ornamentation are no longer visible, and when torn down by the wind, or when they fall from decay, the refuse gives a dingy and dirty appearance to every thing it comes in contact with. It would be of interest to know whether this spider is confined to a certain latitude, and at what seasons of the year our temperature we can indulge in our illumination."
Already people were beginning to see the effects of artificial light at night. Yet until very recently, we really didn't have a good understanding of how harmful those effects could be.
Today, we understand that the issue of light pollution is much more than about whether we can see the night sky. It touches on all these subjects:
At the same time, we shouldn't forget the allure of the stars. Early evidence suggests that 'astrotourism' is a growth industry that may see an explosion of interest as the Covid-19 pandemic eases. It can be an engine of economic development activity in rural areas, but only if skies there remain dark. And new concerns, like light pollution from satellites, continue to emerge.
The diversity of effects caused by light pollution means there's something for everyone in the dark-skies movement. Some participants know little about astronomy but care deeply for better nighttime visibility. Concern for wildlife motivates others. And even those for whom breaking down barriers in society is a priority are coming to see lighting as an important consideration.
Whether it's to see more stars, improve community safety at night or make conditions better for the ecology, pursuit of dark skies is key. Contact us today to find out how we can help achieve your goals.