Join Montreal’s Light Pollution Debate

Montreal photographed by the International Space Station

Photo of the Montreal region taken on angle from a distance of 600 kilometres in orbit on the International Space Station on Dec. 24, 2010. Photograph by: NASA, The Gazette

Astronomers, and especially amateur astronomers, are at the forefront of many anti-light pollution campaigns the world over. It simply doesn’t occur to most people that lighting up your home like a hotel, or turning your driveway into a landing-strip fit for a 747, may be a bad idea. The general consensus is that more light is better: better security, better visibility, a sign of progress.

But there is a “dark side” to polluting our skies with stray light. It is a huge waste of energy, it is bad for our environment, and it is bad for our health. Even small amounts of light pollution at night have been linked to an increase in various cancers. In large cities, especially those with tall illuminated skyscrapers, migrating birds crash into lit windows and die by the hundreds. And anyone who looks up at night misses out on a sight more glamorous than illuminated shopping centres: the stars, galaxies, and our Milky Way, which should be visible to us all.

The fight against light pollution doesn’t mean you need to turn into a Luddite and prowl dark urban streets with a flash light. The tragedy of urban light pollution is that so much of it could be avoided by employing the simplest means. Installing lights which shine down instead of up could cut light pollution in half as well as save energy: think of street lights, the lights around your home, even billboards which could be illuminated from above rather than below.

The light pollution debate recently made it into the Montreal Gazette, when André G. Bordeleau, an astronomer and science writer who lives in Pointe Claire, wrote a long and insightful article about the perils of light pollution. It was a response to an earlier article which ran in the Gazette which raved about an image of Montreal by night, taken by the International Space Station.

A month ago, The Gazette’s David Johnston wrote a gushing column on a photo of Montreal taken at night by the International Space station last December. He did not see an atrocious waste of electricity and an environmental calamity in that photograph. Rather he rotated it and saw a smiling man and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer!

As several letter writers, including former colleague Nicolas Gulino, pointed out, one should not look for reindeers in pollution. I suspect most people would have strongly objected had Johnston characterized the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as “beautiful” and had looked for patterns in it. So why do so when the pollution originates from light?

[excerpt]

What do you think? Is light pollution a concern for you? What kind of light fixtures did you install on your own home? Leave us a comment.

And if you’d like to get involved in the fight against light pollution, why don’t you participate in Earth Hour this March 26th. The RASC will be in Westmount Park in the evening, equipped with our telescopes, in the hope that once the lights go out we’ll be able to see some stars.

Read the Gazette article gushing about the ISS photo here.

Read André G. Bordeleau’s response here.

About Bettina Forget