A couple of Julys ago I found myself on Nebraska State Highway 92 heading east towards Broken Bow, in central Nebraska, in the middle of the night. I had unwisely driven non-stop from the Colorado border and was feeling the effects of highway hypnosis. My stomach was also grumbling for a snack. I found a turnout from the road, backed into it, then switched off the engine.
I fumbled for my travel mug and a sandwich, climbed out of the seat, into the warm air and near total darkness, then sat down on the front fender of the ol’ Camry. I could have danced a jig on the road because there hadn’t been a vehicle besides mine for more than half-an-hour. I munched the sandwich while listening to the rustle of prairie grass and insects in the breeze.
Then, I noticed my eyes had finally become accustomed to the absence of dashboard lights and oncoming headlights. Even though there wasn’t a yard light in sight and the Moon was in its “new” phase, the ground was completely visible. The only illumination came from the band of stars in the Milky Way.
I probably scanned and studied the sky for at least an hour when I remembered to complete the journey home. I reluctantly climbed into the car and switched on the engine. When the headlights came on, the brilliance momentarily blinded me. I put the transmission in gear and headed east.
In my opinion, Central Nebraska is a dark sky preserve. This is due to much less artificial outdoor nighttime lighting. The small villages and towns are spaced many miles apart and much of the open country is ranchland. The wide-open spaces are a refreshment for the mind and spirit. Except for the asphalt highways, the environment is much the same as it has been since before the European invasion.
Even though I live in a small city, there are plenty of streetlights and outdoor advertising signs. The nearest streetlight is perhaps 50-feet away from my front door. So, even on a cloudless, moonless night, I can only see the brightest stars. The Big Dipper is often the only recognizeable constellation. During the wintertime I can also see Orion’s Belt.
Nighttime used to be my primetime. Most of my career had been spent working overnights in radio. People often called me their personal Dracula because the rising Sun always made me feel sleepy. I made a point of hitting the sack before 7:00 AM.
This happy, nighttime lifestyle came at a personal cost. The harsh, fluorescent lighting of the studios and other artificial light affected me physically and emotionally. It exasperated my sleep disorder, contributed to depressive moods, and enabled slow-onset weight gains.
Certainly, I’m not the only creature to encounter the negative effects of artificial nighttime lighting. Biologists have long known that light pollution has serious side effects on migrating animals, like birds and butterflies. Sea turtle hatchlings are also drawn to beachside city lights.
A dark sky is surely of great benefit for the well-being of man and beast, but there is also the reality of crime and safety. Nobody would feel safe in the middle of a city without nighttime artificial lighting. Complete darkness could encourage more muggings and burglaries.
While we may feel safer because of outdoor lighting, many of us don’t realize that poorly designed outdoor lights can actually make us less safe. Overly bright, unfiltered lighting causes shadows in which thieves and muggers can hide. Bright suburban lights constrict our eyes’ pupils, diminishing safety and poor night vision. This effect is particularly hazardous to nighttime drivers.
We can reverse the negative effects of artificial outdoor lighting by having our cities replace old-fashioned streetlights with energy efficient, dark sky friendly fixtures when the time comes for replacements and upgrades. Homeowners can shield or filter outdoor lights or angle them downward, if possible, to keep light within property lines.
Lower wattage bulbs or specially designed LED illumination will enhance the safety and security around the home. One solution is the use of motion detectors.
When nighttime falls, we can study our surroundings and think of ways to enhance our safety and security yet allow us to enjoy the beauty of the dark sky.
The Blue Jay of Happiness recommends this “Dark Ranger” Kevin Poe YouTube video: https://youtu.be/4k06e-plLW4