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In the dark


August 2018

Town lit up at night
Light pollution is still growing around the world

Light pollution is a very modern problem. During the 1970s and 1880s electricity was beginning to make big headroads. In the UK Holborn Viaduct and the Thames Embankment were among the early streets to benefit from electrical lamps in 1878, and just two years later one of the very first houses in the UK to be lit by electricity, in this case by an incandescent lamp, was Cragside near Rothbury in Northumberland in 1880.

In the 100 years plus that have followed, electricity has become a mainstay of modern day life; and lighting at night a key aspect. Home, cars, shops, sports venues, streets, boats – after dark lights appear everywhere.

The problem is the use of electric lighting is still growing; wonderful for people to continue to enjoy their lives after dark; but not so good for anyone who wants to enjoy the night sky.

It is not just star watchers that are experiencing problems. A report in the journal Nature explained how artificial light was reducing the pollinating activities of nocturnal insects and proving a problem with certain crop pollination. Other research has shown that trees in brightly lit areas shorten their winter resting period and can come into flower early. There have also been studies showing that the large areas of artificial light found near towns and urban complexes can confuse bird and wildlife including migrating birds. Other animals may be losing their natural hunting and sleeping cycles as the difference in light levels between night and day becomes reduced.

We humans too can suffer from light pollution. Recent studies by the American Medical Association have said it now officially recognises the detrimental effects of high intensity LED lighting and highlight the fact that the sleep inducing hormone melatonin is particularly sensitive to blue light.

The good news is that for those of us who still like to stare at the stars, and certainly for professionals who are studying our universe, there are a number of organisations today working hard to protect our night skies. One that has been very successful is the International Dark Sky Association

The DSA is an American organisation that has set up a special International Dark Sky Places programme to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies. They have been successful in obtaining support across the world from Jordan to Japan and as far as the Warrambungle National Park in Australia.

There are a number of places in the UK that have also joined this programme...interestingly we have some of the largest areas of dark sky in Europe.

These key areas in the UK and Ireland identified by the DSA for special dark sky reserves and parks include:

  • Brecon Beacons in Wales
  • Elan Valley, Powys, Wales
  • Exmoor National Park, Somerset, England
  • Galloway Forest Park, Scotland
  • Isle of Coll, Inner Hebrides, Scotland
  • Isle of Sark, Channel Islands
  • Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
  • Kielder Water and Forest Park, Northumberland, England
  • Snowdonia in North Wales
  • South Downs in Sussex, England

You can find out more about these sites at

There is nothing more beautiful than seeing our own Milky Way twinkling and sparkling into the far stretches of space, and while the above places might be the very best; for many of us just driving away from big urbanisations can ensure we have a great view of many of at least the brighter stars.

The subject of dark skies is not going to go away…especially as light pollution is still increasing across the world plus there is a growing interest in star watching. The National Trust has quite a lot of information on the subject including tips on star watching.

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