Connecticut's Night Skies Are Fading From View Due to Light Pollution

 

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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.
 

Connecticut's Night Skies Are Fading From View Due to Light Pollution

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