If you are like me, you enjoy springtime in the South. As I walk through our neighborhoods and parks during the day, flowers and birds brighten colorful corners of Earth I had not appreciated before (achoo!). Under a dark night sky, we are also treated with an earlier stunning view of the Milky Way Galaxy’s center: a treasure trove of bright star clusters and nebulae in the constellation Sagittarius lie toward the south; hidden from our view in the winter. Unfortunately, 80% of people living in the United States have never seen the Milky Way, which under dark skies appears as an arch of milky light spilled across the sky. One-hundred years ago, this celestial phenomenon provoked awe and wonder in the casual nighttime observer, as it does for me after driving away from city lights.
Today, most Alabamians live under light polluted skies. Artificial light at night not only hides the Milky Way but is wasted energy. Estimates from satellite data suggest somewhere between $4 – $7 billion is spent annually on light pointed out and up, instead of targeted at the ground where it is needed most for supporting our awareness of our surroundings. Bothered by a light that blinds you on your way home, or trespasses through your window while you are trying to sleep? These fixtures are causing glare – directing unnecessary light toward your eye. The good news is that there is a solution: shielded light fixtures can go a long way toward mitigating energy waste, saving our money, and preserving our health. Shielded outdoor light fixtures improve night vision with the reduction of glare and increase your chances for good sleep by reducing glare. With modern technology, communities across the globe have begun to change their lighting – and they are saving lots of money doing it. Beyond the massive municipal cost savings over time, reducing and changing artificial light at night can positively impact our biodiverse Alabama ecosystems. Humans, migratory birds, fireflies, and sea turtles are among many animals studied whose circadian rhythm is affected by artificial light at night.
A lot can happen if we all work together to improve lighting in our sweet home of Alabama. To date, 36 cities have adopted lighting ordinances and retrofits to support dark skies, earning official designations as Dark-Sky Communities. For example, in 2018, Tucson, Arizona became a designated Dark-Sky Community and has saved $2 million every year since then, while reducing their light pollution. Could Birmingham be next? Community members in and around Birmingham are helping spread awareness of light pollution, and appreciation of the wonderful world of Earthen livelihood in the dark. You and your loved ones are invited to come out and be illuminated about how you can help and share in the celebration of dark skies during International Dark Sky Week, April 22 – 30, 2022.
Dr. Michelle Wooten is an International Dark-Sky Association Delegate and an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
*Editors note: More information about the International Dark Sky Week can be found here. There will be an event at the University of Montevallo’s James Wylie Shepherd Observatory April 26 from 7-9. Admittance is free.