The Dark Side of Light

May 2015

I was born in a small town. Visits to Cape Town were big events. I remember the beautiful beaches, the cable car, the steepness of Kloofnek Road, my grandmother’s balcony and the fascinating lights at night. White, red, blue, yellow, and orange – shining, pulsating and blinking put on a spectacular show. Nights in our little town were quiet and lit up by the Moon and thousands of twinkling stars. If one stood really still, you could hear the high pitched buzzing sounds of insects and soft shuffling of nocturnal animals. Fireflies were abundant. If you lay on your back long enough, just looking at the stars, you were bound to see a few meteors streak across the sky.
I live in a city now. Visits to small towns are big events now. My body needs to escape from the extended run of the greatest show on Earth: The incandescent, compact fluorescent, mercury vapour, metal halide, halogen, low pressure/high pressure sodium vapour and LED spectacle.
Staging this ongoing show of lights, comes at a major cost – financially, environmentally and medically. One of the biggest disappointments: we were made to believe that excessive lighting would halt criminal activity.
As major infrastructure starts to crumble under the heavy burden of trying to keep this artificial show on the road, small towns need to start leading by example.
Does the community of Betty’s Bay feel deprived because they do not have the orange glow of high pressure sodium vapour lamps flooding the fynbos and into their bedrooms at night? It is a question of one or the other. We can “threaten wildlife, ruin habitats, foul the air, squanders resources, and blocks our view of the heavens” or have a kaleidoscope of lights switched on constantly. Even if we don’t care so much for the environment we can suppress the production of Melatonin in our own bodies and give rise to the disruption of our circadian rhythms (believe me we should not be messing with those) or we can prove that living without excessive illumination is the most natural thing in the world.

This is not only my take but research has shown “that blue light-emitting diodes (LED) pose a more serious threat. Blue light is dispersed through the atmosphere more easily than red (the reason why the sky is blue). To change from red/orange to blue-white blue lights means an increase in light pollution and a waste of energy. Thus, the use of the blue-biased LED is discouraged. (Example: This effect is particularly noticeable when meeting vehicles equipped with high intensity blue-white LED headlights)”
I would advocate that all external alarm lights be orange/red rather than blue. I have a neighbour who has a flashing blue LED to ward off criminals? These I feel should not be allowed at all. For me one of the most precious things about Betty’s Bay is its night sky and I spend a lot of time looking at the stars. Unfortunately the quality of Betty’s Bay’s night sky has diminished, especially in the last decade. Having a flashing blue LED disturb the serenity and beauty of the night is a worrying factor. If I feel so disturbed by this, how more so for all the nocturnal creatures?

(The quotes I’ve used come from various internet sites which deal with light pollution around the globe.)
One site worth visiting is The international Dark Sky Association

One small step against light pollution

July 2014

For a considerable time I have been noticing a white glow in the Betty’s Bay night sky. At first I thought that someone had installed an unshielded outside light while on holiday, then went back home and left it on to shine forever.

Heading back to the city one early morning after a night of stargazing, the bright illumination of the Caltex garage and specifically the Caltex sign stood in stark contrast to the rest of Betty’s Bay, which still lay blanketed in natural darkness. All I could think about for a day or two was the fuel station, which at night seemed so alien. One Caltex sign would not be able to obliterate the whole Milky Way but a few more highly illuminated hotspots could do severe damage to our natural night sky. Even though the chances of getting a response from such a giant company were most probably nil, I wrote an email.

You can imagine my surprise when I opened my inbox a few weeks later.

“Thank you for your email. Please accept our apologies for attending to your query at this late stage.We are currently working our way through a backlog as we have been inundated with queries over the last few weeks.Could you kindly provide your contact number so that we may contact you?”

Thus started my communication with the Customer Service Centre Chevron South Africa (PTY) LTD. My query was forwarded to the relevant department. I was updated regularly on the progress of the matter. “Please be advised we are still in the process of investigating and finalizing your query”

On 2 July 2014 I recieved a call and was put through to a manager, in charge of a certain cluster of service stations, who had this to say:
1. The erf on which the service station is located had been zoned for the purpose of running a fuel station. They were granted all the legal rights from the municipality
2. The illumination is in accordance with national regulations
3. The signage is in accordance with national regulations
4. No, they do not differentiate between urban, rural or sensitive fynbos areas when it comes to the amount of illumination used.
5. The service station is there to stay ( which of course I had not queried because lets face it, I need fuel as well as the Milky Way)

Well, at least someone had taken the time to attend to my query and had actually responded. “Yes I understand. Thank you for taking the time….” I was about to say goodbye….

“But what we will do……The sign has recently been damaged by the wind. During repairs we will remove the sensor that automatically switches on the light at nightfall. The service station closes at 6pm. The light will be switched off then. Please go and remind the retailer if they forget to switch off the sign. The downlights over the pumps will, unfortunately, have to remain on throughout the night.”

Caltex will be switching off its sign! If each of us would switch off, use motion sensors or at least shield outdoor lights, the natural night sky could be preserved for generations to come and not become the legend of Betty’s Bay and its Milky Way.



Residential lighting guidelines