A photograph of the Korean peninsula from space at night recently made national news, showing bright lights blanketing South Korea while North Korea was dark. It was meant to show that although North Korea has the bomb, it is still an impoverished, undeveloped nation.
But the photo told another story as well. To the Evening Standard in Britain, it was “a picture of environmental madness” that showed “how profligate and polluting South Korea and the rest of the Westernized world have become.”
We illuminate our world by millions and millions of lights at night, whether it is natural gas burning in oil wells or industrial fisheries using lights to attract squid and other ocean life. The view from space is a picture of waste and exploitation, a visual record of the squandering of our natural capital and ecosystems.
Light pouring into the sky serves no purpose except as a symbol of vanity, like spotlights at a Westwood premiere. Besides, the wasted energy almost surely contributes to air pollution, global warming or other ecological disruption. Light pollution also obscures the view of the night sky, causing visual blight; and disrupts the natural rhythms of some species.
These disruptions are real. Night migrating birds attracted to lights collide with structures. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 4 million to 5 million birds die this way every year. Hatchling sea turtles attracted to light end up desiccated or eaten near their natal beaches.
Light is a drug, and our 24-hour society abuses it. Humans produce the hormone melatonin in the dark. Without darkness, production is diminished. This partially explains the greater incidence of breast cancer in women who work the night shift and never sleep in complete darkness.
Lest we point fingers elsewhere, UCLA itself generates light pollution — more and more as pathway lighting is “upgraded” and new buildings fill in open spaces. A decade ago, a pair of great horned owls reliably nested around the Sculpture Garden and on a ledge of the Public Policy building.
But ever since an earthquake retrofit that included a large buttress lit up like a Roman candle, the owls have left. Their return seems unlikely, given the recent increase in all-night illumination in the trees and the glowing canopy of the Broad Art Center. Too much light allows owls’ prey to escape.
Light pollution can be remedied. Extinguishing lights or shielding them properly eliminates or minimizes their negative side effects, besides contributing to massive progress in combating the production of greenhouse gases. In ecologically sensitive areas, lights should be avoided or other measures taken to reduce adverse impacts. Solving this problem gives an immediate financial, aesthetic and environmental payoff.
Longcore is a lecturer in geography and in the Institute of the Environment. Rich has a J.D. and M.A. in geography from UCLA. They are co-editors of a recent book, “Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting.”