Dark skies at night: Light pollution and what a park is doing about it
New street lights may be more energy-efficient but they can increase light pollution
St. John's seems brighter these days, according to people who spend more time than most gazing at the night sky, and some popular energy-saving solutions may be making things worse.
On a foggy evening, for instance, the sky glows orange after dusk, as reflective light appears to bounce off the air itself.
The problem, though, is not the fog, but the lighting used to keep the city safe at night.
"We noticed, over the years, that the city seemed to glow brighter," said Jerry Ennis, a St. John's Royal Astronomical Society member and former federal fisheries research scientist who has advocated against light pollution for more than 15 years.
The society uses Butter Pot Provincial Park for stargazing. The park, which is near Holyrood, is well outside St. John's and the thousands of street lights in the metro region.
Ennis is part of a growing community that is advocating for greater controls on the lights that illuminate our skies. Their target is light pollution, and the work is taking place not just in cities but in isolated areas, too.
For instance, one of the bright — or, rather, dark — spots is in Terra Nova National Park, a 250-kilometre drive west of St. John's.
Parks Canada has been welcoming visitors to what are called Dark-Sky Preserves, a set of 13 places across the country where people can gaze at the stars with as little interference as possible from artificial lights.
"Becoming a Dark-Sky Preserve seemed like a natural fit for us," said Karen Wolfrey, a visitor experience manager at Terra Nova National Park.
"We're located in one of the darkest areas of the Island, and if you're looking at a sky glow map of Eastern North America, you can see we're actually in one of the darkest parts of Canada," she said.
"It just made so much sense."
Changes made at the park
Parks Canada has teamed up with the Royal Astronomical Society for the project, and the agency says it now offers more dark-sky protection than anywhere else in the world.
The preserve has been in place at Terra Nova since 2018.
Wolfrey said the park made numerous changes to achieve that status.
"We had shades installed on our lights," she said. We no longer have any upward-directed light, we reduced our blue light emissions, and we have our lights on timers."
The relationship with the society, Wolfrey said, was critical.
"They helped us develop dark-sky and astronomical programs. We hope the programs help people learn about the benefits of managing light pollution and get people excited about the night sky," she said.
The best time of year to go stargazing at the Dark-Sky Reserve? "The fall," she said.
"It's gorgeous in the autumn, and the night sky is so clear and expansive," said Wolfrey.
Parks Canada offers kits that visitors can borrow, including binoculars and other tools. Wolfrey also recommended that visitors book what is called an oasis tent, or pod.
"It resembles a water droplet and has see-through roof panels and side windows," she said.
Wolfrey has other tips too.
"People should check the phases of the moon and pick a date that has little or no moon in the sky — the light from the moon will affect your ability to see at night," she said. Visitors should also check weather forecasts, set up equipment before dark, download an astronomy app and turn off all their own lighting.
Light pollution and how it affects people
Finding that kind of a dark space in metro St. John's is pretty much impossible.
Ennis has been spending years looking at the lighting in the metro area — and advocating for change. His advice, and the findings of researchers, may surprise those who believe they're doing the planet a favour by using energy-efficient LED street lights.
"Light pollution, particularly with LED lights, which many cities are switching to, has the potential to be very bad for human health," said Ennis.
Ennis has presented his case to Newfoundland Power and the City of St. John's. He points to an American Health Association report released in 2016 that linked the blue light emitted from LED street lighting to mood disorders and prostate and breast cancer.
People are very complacent about light pollution.- Jerry Ennis
The same report found that blue and white LED street lighting was five times more disruptive to human sleep than conventional street lighting.
"It affects human health and ecosystems negatively," Ennis said. "It harms migratory birds and is terrible for nighttime pollinators. Still, it doesn't get understood in the way water or air pollution does. People are very complacent about light pollution."
Ennis said part of the problem in addressing the issue of light pollution are the pervasive myths about city lights.
"People think brightly lit parks and spaces are safer, but studies consistently show that bright lights aren't correlated with a decrease in crime," he said.
He said using LED street lights — while more energy-efficient and economical — can affect the circadian rhythms of anyone nearby. If they're too powerful, those lights actually end up wasting resources, he says.
Ennis says Newfoundland Power seems dialled into light pollution. "The new LEDs are much safer, and in some places, they use domed fixtures so that light isn't sprayed everywhere," he said.
"Still, they aren't good for us, and I don't believe every street light needs to be replaced with an LED. I think people might be putting cost savings ahead of human and ecosystem health."
Looking at lighting
Most of the street lights in St. John's are owned by Newfoundland Power. Coun. Ian Froude, city council's sustainability lead, says Newfoundland Power has been replacing old street lights with LEDs as they need repairs.
He said people concerned about the brightness of a light should contact the city through the 311 access line, or get in touch with Newfoundland Power.
Meanwhile, some more changes seem to be afoot. In 2019, the city was looking at changing more than 270 ornamental shorter bulbs — not street lights — to LED lights.
A downtown decorative street light working group was formed, led by Coun. Debbie Hanlon, and determined that replacing the bulbs yielded only slight improvements in lighting levels. As well, the high wattage of the bulbs reduced energy-efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
A 60-watt test LED fixture was provided by a manufacturer and installed downtown at the corner of George and Adelaide streets. This new fixture seemed to reduce glare and improve visibility, so installing new LED fixtures and bulbs is slated to begin next year.
The working group's report doesn't mention blue or white lighting, the maximum lumens of the lights or whether the lights will have built-in shields or trespass guards to shield the light.
While the city has regulations on the maximum lumens allowed on changeable message signs, there are no bylaws or rules for light pollution on residential properties either.
"You can always contact your city councillor if you're concerned about light pollution. It's something you can bring to our attention," Froude said.
Ennis pointed out that people can make personal adjustments to lights on their property.
"Use warm-coloured LED bulbs, not the blue or white light ones," Ennis said, adding that dimmers, timers and outdoor fixtures can shield and minimize glare.
"The biggest thing you can do is turn off your lights at night."
Changing policies on light pollution, says Ennis, can be a tougher sell.
"I've sent letters to municipal affairs and built presentations," he said.
"In my naiveté, I thought a change would happen quickly, but we're reluctant to change. Still, reaching out and building awareness of light pollution is worth a shot."
The culture of the night sky
Hilding Raymond Neilson, a physics professor at Memorial University, focuses on the physics of stars and understanding the exoplanets that orbit them.
He says he believes light pollution leads to a sense of disconnection and has both a scientific and cultural impact.
"I just moved here from Toronto. I could maybe see six stars," he said.
"I'm not a psychiatrist, but I imagine that being disconnected from the night sky makes us feel disconnected from nature. If we're used to a world of concrete and light, we're not going to care about the trees and plants," he said.
Neilson points out that not all light pollution is from street lights. Satellites, he says, are becoming a problem.
"The number of satellites in the sky is about to leap. Companies like Starlink [a network developed by SpaceX] are promising to put up tens of thousands. Many of these satellites are being put into low-Earth orbits and have solar panels attached, which reflect light down to Earth," Neilson said.
"I don't want to demonize all satellites because some of these do good things, like giving rural communities access to the internet, but it's very much a capitalist Wild West. An action people can take is to ask for regulations and limits on the amount of satellites being launched."
Beyond the human and animal health concerns, Neilson worries the cultural heritage of the night sky is disappearing.
"We're in St. John's. Indigenous lands are all around us," said Neilson, who is Mi'kmaw.
"Our skies are related to the lands we're on. Even though there are good health and scientific reasons to worry about light pollution, there are millennia-long cultural practices, and stories told about the night sky, and we need to remember that."