Connecticut's Night Skies Are Fading From View Due to Light Pollution
Bob Crelin took this unique 35mm film photo of his nephew gazing at the summer milky way in Vermont. the image is a single exposure using two different focus settings during a long exposure. crelin used two tall ladders, a large black cloth, two filtered flashlights and a barn-door camera mount and timer to capture the moment.
Throughout our state and much of the Northeast, light pollution has encroached upon the darkness, turning what was once an ink-black canvas dotted with countless bright stars to a chalkboard-grey, sparsely starred expanse. The ramifications of that change extend far beyond the frustration of backyard stargazers. The loss of the dark night sky to excess outdoor lighting has implications for energy policy, safety and security, animal behavior and human health.
Of course, there’s no turning back to the preelectric-light era; the night sky will never again be as dark as it was a century ago. But a handful of advocates and activists across the state have worked for the past two decades to prevent further erosion of—and to evenpartially restore—what’s come to be known as the “dark sky.” Their efforts have placed Connecticut among the leaders in the international initiative to salvage our clear view of the cosmos.
Bob Crelin remembers the summer night in 1994 when he took his 4-year-old daughter to their Branford backyard for her first stargazing session. “I had remembered so clearly when I was a child, seeing the Milky Way,” Crelin says. “It wasn’t necessarily something you had to look for. It was obvious, a misty path across the sky. I was fully expecting I could have that same experience and share it with her. But it had drastically changed.” Crelin and his daughter couldn’t see the Milky Way at all.
“That got me wondering, wow, what could have happened?” he says. “The term ‘light pollution’ wasn’t being thrown around at the time, but it was pretty easy to figure out that human-made electric light was contributing” to the loss of the night sky.” (The 2011 documentary The City Dark shines light on that phenomenon.)
Not everyone endorses the term “light pollution,” which to some implies that light itself is a pollutant. Still, semantics aside, it’s clear to Crelin and others that excess light from thousands of fixtures floods the sky at night, causing glare, glow and other phenomena that are not just unsightly but potentially dangerous. The biology of the human eye dictates that we can only see well at one end of the light-dark spectrum at a time. Faced with bright light, we can’t see what lurks in the dark. And when we’re driving in the dark but suddenly confronted with bright light, we can’t see well, either.
Crelin, an entrepreneur, musical instrument designer and author (who has written two children’s books about the night sky) decided to educate himself about nighttime lighting. He researched light properties and light fixtures. He learned how misdirected and poorly shielded fixtures spread light in all directions, effectively blinding any creature that comes near, and how aiming light downward and shielding it directs light where it’s needed—and not where it’s not.
Crelin attended star-watching gatherings around Branford, handing out simple postcards that people could sign and send to the planning and zoning commission requesting restrictions on the use of outdoor lights in their community. Only a handful of the cards he distributed ever reached lawmakers, Crelin acknowleges, but the process of educating the public was underway. Branford P&Z chair Shirley Rasmussen was soon on his side.
“She was great, so receptive,” Crelin recalls. “She let me write a lot of the language of the law.” In 1997, Branford enacted sky-friendly regulations for outdoor lighting. Other towns soon followed suit.
Leo Smith of Suffield has been passionately working toward a darker night sky for decades. A longtime member of the International Dark-Sky Association, he serves in several leadership roles in the organization. Just about anyone interested in dark-sky issues in Connecticut will name Smith as the driving force behind the state’s adoption of legislation regulating outdoor lighting.
Connecticut was at the forefront of passing dark-sky legislation, Smith notes, adopting a law in 2001 that required streetlights to be shielded. “Being first gave us the benefit of not having strong opposition from the electric companies and lighting industry build up,” he says. “Once we got the first law passed, it didn’t seem so foreign to legislators to be passing laws regarding outdoor lighting.”
In the beginning, Smith says, there was some pushback. But over time, the key players largely worked out their differences. A law passed in 2003 required spotlights mounted on wooden poles in parking lots and other private properties to be fully shielded so they didn’t shine directly in drivers’ eyes—or into the sky. The law allowed lighting companies several years to rectify all existing lights.
“We went out with them and took a drive, identifying problems when we saw them,” Smith explains. “By that time, we were working together.” Legislation passed in 2006 required all outdoor lighting for property leased or owned by the state to be fully shielded.
All told, Connecticut now has three laws applying to lighting on public property and two regulations concerning lighting issues on private property, according to Smith. He says two of the key issues—the direction in which light is aimed and the heat and color of the light—have now both been addressed. “The third part,” he says, “is a long way off. We need to get people to turn the lights off when they don’t need them.”
That seems like it would be an easy sell, since using outdoor lighting more efficiently saves energy—and money. But lack of awareness, plus some liability issues, continue to dim that prospect, says Smith.
Former state representative Ruth Fahrbach, (61st Dist., 1981 to 2009), was the Republican co-sponsor with Democrat Jim O’Rourke of the dark-sky legislation passed in the early 2000s. She, like many others involved in Connecticut’s dark-sky quest, credits Smith with educating her and other legislators about issues related to overuse of outdoor nighttime lighting. “It usually takes years for something like this to get through [the legislative process]—this one passed a lot faster than anything else,” she says, adding that there was enthusiastic support from both sides of the aisle. “I was thrilled. After we passed our legislation, people in Europe modeled their dark-sky laws after ours.”
Still, Fahrbach admits that so far, “I haven’t seen a big change, unfortunately” in the quality of Connecticut’s night sky. “Even though the law said the lights need to be changed [to shielded versions] when they were being repaired or replaced, the powers-that-be find excuses not to do it,” she laments, noting that enforcement of the law is lax. “It will take somebody in the governor’s office to insist that people enforce the law.”
As a professor of astronomy at Yale University and a longtime backyard stargazer, Robert Zinn says both his vocation and avocation are suffering from the lack of visible inspiration above us.
“People seldom look up at the sky,” Zinn says, because nowadays “it’s not so spectacular. You can see the moon, a few planets, a few bright stars.” That, he notes, may have contributed to there being “fewer young people interested in astronomy. As a result, I think this country will have fewer people pursuing astronomy as a calling or as their main thing when they arrive at college. They may take it up when they get there. But the number has dwindled.
“I’m not sure there are any skies in Connecticut that don’t have some light pollution,” he continues. “We’ll never go back, certainly not in Connecticut. But we can stop taking away the night sky. It’s something we once had for free, a spectacular natural show that goes on nightly.”
That loss is of course sad, but it’s not as sobering as what Richard Stevens, a cancer epidemiologist at the UConn Health Center, has to say. Stevens has conducted and published groundbreaking research into the potential health effects of interfering with the natural cycle of light and dark.
“Most of us don’t remember a time before electric light,” Stevens says. “For three billion years, we had bright, full-spectrum days and dark nights. The moon, while it affects the biology of most terrestrial organisms, is rather dim, so it doesn’t affect circadian rhythms. We got fire a long time ago, but it was used intermittently, it’s relatively dim, and it has a yellow and red wavelength,” to which humans are less sensitive than to blue light, which we see first thing in the morning.
That cycle of light and dark governs our bodies’ release of the hormone melatonin and the circadian rhythm that regulates all manner of bodily functions, including hunger and sleep. It recurs approximately every 24 hours, with the light of day as the cue that resets our inner clocks. “It’s a normal and healthy cycle, in tune with nature,” he says. “But now many people are out of rhythm,” because nighttime light exposure (via the eyes’ retinas) has disrupted the circadian cycle.
Science has yet to pin down a cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to light at night and any specific health condition in humans, Stevens notes, but he says there’s substantial research suggesting links to diabetes, breast cancer, obesity, among other conditions.
But it’s well known that nighttime lighting can interfere with the routines of birds, bats, insects and sea turtles, as well as creatures such as fireflies that communicate through light signals. And while the effects of light at night on human health aren’t yet fully understood, the American Medical Association in 2012 issued a statement spelling out the potential health risks and declaring that it “supports the need for developing and implementing technologies to reduce glare from vehicle headlamps and roadway lighting schemes, and developing lighting technologies at home and at work that minimize circadian disruption, while maintaining visual efficiency.”
“It becomes a policy issue,” says Stevens. “If epidemiology finds a large health impact, society needs to put more research into solutions.” Those solutions may be as simple as rejigging the kind of lights we use in various fixtures, shifting to LED lighting and other options that emit more red and yellow light than blue.
Despite his misgivings about the impact of excess electric nighttime light, Stevens remains practical. “I’m not giving up electricity,” he says.
Greg Barker is president of the Astronomical Society of New Haven. On a Friday evening in October, he and a half-dozen other amateur astronomers have hauled their large (and in some cases handcrafted) telescopes to a paved lot in the darkest public spot nearby, Silver Sands State Park in Milford. But even here, the darkness is impeded by glow from lights along the Post Road, the Westfield Connecticut Post Mall, and nearby residential neighborhoods. Still, the astronomers’ enthusiasm is not dampened by the dearth of darkness, to which they all seem resigned.
Finding sites dark enough for these gatherings has become increasingly challenging, Barker says. They’ve tried Colebrook and Marlborough; the last was a great “star party” site—for a while. “We had to move because someone put condominiums in the area,” he says. “Our southern view of the night sky, which had been quite good, was completely ruined.”
The society alternates its star parties between Milford and Branford, which, due to Bob Crelin’s efforts, Barker says offers superior views. He points to the June Norcross Webster Scout Reservation, a Boy Scout camp in Ashford, as the best place in the state to view the night sky. “But I understand a new development is going in,” he says.
At his gatherings, Barker says, “Some people just stare out and say, ‘Why don’t you do this at darker sky?’ [later in the night, when full darkness sets in]. I tell them, ‘In Connecticut, we’re at the darkest sky. If you want it darker, tell people to turn the lights off.’”
Donna Pursley of North Branford, who has her telescope set up at the star party, wishes things were different. “In Maine there are so many stars, you can’t even find the constellations,” she says. “I don’t expect Connecticut will ever be like that. Except in a power outage.”