By John Barentine
Much of our world is now awash in artificial light at night, the result of more than a century of electrification. This light has enabled all manner of nighttime human activity from transportation to commerce, but it now presents a significant challenge to industrialized nations and emerging economies. Artificial light at night has known negative effects on humans and animals, and light wasted from overabundant and inefficient sources is a problem in terms of energy security and climate change.
Throughout the history of our species, a natural form of light has fundamentally shaped the human experience: the light of distant stars and galaxies. Starry nights inspired great works of art, literature and music, as well as centuries of scientific discovery. Every fascinating fact we know about astronomy and our universe was ultimately found as a result of humans looking skyward at night, asking “how?” and “why?”
Technology and industry provide societies with the means to roll back the influence of night and extend human activities well into the overnight hours, but this ability has come at great cost. In many cities, light pollution now effectively masks cosmic light, putting it outside the experience of billions of people who know little or nothing of the stars in their own skies. It threatens to sever our most immediate connection to the vast cosmos beyond our planet. Moreover, light pollution fundamentally alters the character and ambience of the nighttime environment upon which Earth’s biology has depended for billions of years.
The mission of my organization, the International Dark Sky Association, is to protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through eco-friendly outdoor lighting. IDA has worked since 1988 to achieve our mission by raising awareness of the negative effects of artificial light at night among voters, consumers, property owners and elected officials around the world. We also work with the global lighting industry to advocate for better design of outdoor light fixtures. IDA is committed to the notion that outdoor lighting, economic development and dark night skies can successfully co-exist.
I manage the IDA’s International Dark Sky Places program that recognizes the efforts of Communities, Parks, and Reserves around the world in preserving and protecting dark locations for the benefit of future generations. Since the program’s inception in 2001, it has helped to preserve the nighttime environment on more than 43,000 km2 of land in nine countries. Interest in the program has never been higher.
The underlying philosophy of International Dark Sky Places is that while humanity has certainly benefited from the application of artificial light, it also needs places of respite where people can experience the qualities of the natural night. Many certified Dark Sky Places feature new outdoor lighting technologies that visitors can experience in hopes they will take these ideas back to the cities and towns in which they live
Locations around the world have received IDA certification through a written application process that documents efforts to raise awareness of dark-skies issues, establish effective public policies to control the growth of outdoor light at night, and reach out to the public to build support for those ideals. Applications are subjected to rigorous peer review to ensure that recipients of Dark Sky Places designations will be able to sustain the enthusiasm and commitment to dark skies long after the initial excitement of the designation fades. Our goal is to build strong mechanisms for maintaining good lighting practices at the Dark Sky Places for generations to come.
The natural night should be accessible to all, as every one of us shares just one night sky. We invite everyone to visit a Dark Sky Place, marvel at the unspoiled night skies that still exist, and contemplate ways to bring the experience of natural nights back into our own lives.
You can make a difference! To learn how you can help protect the nighttime environment, visit our Take Action page.
Photo top right: The Church of the Good Shepard at Lake Tekapo, which is a part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand.
John Barentine is the IDA International Dark Sky Places Program Manager. He comes to IDA from the "dark side" of science – professional astronomy. He obtained a master's degree in physics at Colorado State University and a master's and Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. John has contributed to science in fields ranging from solar physics to galaxy evolution while helping develop hardware for ground-based and aircraft-borne astronomy. Throughout his career, he has been involved in education and outreach efforts to help increase the public understanding of science. The asteroid (14505) Barentine is named in his honor. His interests outside of astronomy and dark skies include history, art & architecture, politics, law and current events. Follow John on Twitter @JohnBarentine