Merry and bright? Holiday lights adding to light pollution problem

The best holiday lights are no holiday lights at all says a local dark-sky advocate.

Light pollution advocates say LED lights becoming a bigger issue

A dark-sky advocate in Edmonton says the best holiday lights are no holiday lights at all. (Christian Abraham/The Associated Press)

The best holiday lights are no holiday lights at all — according to a local dark-sky advocate.

"I'm definitely against all unnecessary lights," said Joan Marie Galat, author of the book Dark Matters: Nature's Reaction to Light Pollution. "Decorating with lights is bad for the environment, it's bad for wildlife and it's also bad for people."

Galat's book focuses on the effect light pollution has on animal life in and around large cities. The book is aimed at kids, but she says the overall issue of light pollution is something urban areas are struggling with.

The latest Statistic Canada numbers show 42 per cent of households in Alberta reported using LED holiday lights in 2015. That's up from 31 per cent in 2007.

A major international study published in the science journal Science Advances showed the planet's artificially-lit outdoor area grew by more than two per cent per year between 2012 and 2016.

A popular light pollution map also shows that in 2015, Alberta had some of the widest skyglow area in Canada. Skyglow refers to the brightness of the night sky from artificial sources. 

LED lights contributing to problem

Downtown Edmonton has seen an increase in urban light installations over the past few years, specifically LED lights on high-rise buildings and the High Level Bridge.

Rod McConnell, president of the Alberta Dark Sky Association, says LED lights have exchanged one kind of environmental problem for another.

"LED lights are brighter for the amount of power consumed," says McConnell. "People think 'OK we're using less power so we should put in more lights,' but this whole thing is a fallacy."

A world atlas light pollution map shows the artificial light brightness over parts of North America in 2015. (www.lightpollutionmap.info)

He explains that at the basic level, light waste is where the issue of light pollution originates.

"This is lighting that's not being used for a purpose necessarily, or if it is, it may not necessarily have an audience either," he said, using holiday lights during the wee hours of the morning as an example.

"There are lots of other types of lights that are on all night too that are not really doing anything."

McConnell says light waste creates light pollution, which he defines as light that intrudes into areas where it has no intended purpose.

Light curfew

McConnell also sits on a light efficient policy committee. He said the committee has been working with city administration to implement better solutions like new street lights that limit light spillage into yards and homes.

He said another solution would be a city curfew for decorative lighting, possibly between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

"It all comes back to light waste and if we can really get a handle on it then we will have a handle on the other things," he said.

Only use as much light as necessary.- Joan Marie Galat , author of Dark Matters

Galat said we can help animals that require darkness to feed, mate and sleep by being more discerning about where and how we use artificial light.

"Only use as much light as necessary for the job at hand and point lights downwards," she said. "Use curtains and timers … and avoid decorative lighting because it's really not good."

Dark-Sky Alberta

Despite urban skyglow contributing to light pollution, Alberta has the world's largest recognized dark sky preserve in Wood Buffalo, and Bon Accord became Canada's first dark sky community in 2016.

McConnell believes convincing the masses to forgo holiday lights won't fly, but conversations around light pollution need to happen more often.

"It's the other types of light pollution that are on all year that we're more concerned about," he said. " it's a problem with getting people educated."

About the Author

Tanara McLean is a producer and journalist at CBC Edmonton. She grew up in Red Deer and has spent her entire career in Alberta, working in print, radio and television.