Light pollution refers to excessive or improper artificial outdoor lighting that interferes with the natural rhythm of night and day. Too much light pollution interrupts the natural lighting process and can have many significant consequences, including increased energy consumption, disruption of ecosystems, adverse health effects on flora and fauna (including humans), and interrupting human activities such as astronomical research. In fact, light pollution can impact the health of the natural world as drastically as levels of other human-made pollutants, such as hydrocarbons.
In most discussions, light pollution is considered for how it changes the natural lighting of the environment. For example, in and around big cities it can be hard or impossible to see a single star, even in the dead of night. It is akin to trying to have a conversation with a soft-spoken friend while someone blares loud music in the next room. Although the sun goes down, there exists no real night. Humanity has come up with brilliant, innovative, and energy-efficient ways of illuminating the darkness. While the science of illumination has undoubtedly benefited us in countless ways, science is now revealing why it is important that we understand the consequences of so much illumination.
Why is it important to maintain natural light?
Changing the natural light of an environment may dramatically effect the lives of the plants and animals within; indeed, it can even change the weather. Since the very origins of life, the natural world has conditioned itself to respond to the sun’s patterns of light. Life developed photosensitivity so it may anticipate and adapt to the changing seasons, which are caused by the sun’s proximity to the Earth. Metabolic processes such as the changing of the colours of the leaves are direct responses to the type of light in the environment.
How are these natural processes are affected by light pollution?
The natural state of life and its various metabolic processes can be disrupted by too much, too little, or the wrong kind of light. Consider, for example, the effect that blue-light exposure has on human sleep cycles. Numerous scientific studies have confirmed that a leading cause of insomnia is exposure to the blue spectrum of light emitted from the screens of our smart phones, computers, and TVs. It is the type of light emitted by these devices that tricks our brain into thinking it is still daytime, when in fact we would like to sleep. So, we are as responsive to subtle changes in amount or type of light as a plant that aims its blooms towards the sun.
We know that access to daylight impacts mental well-being; just look to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) for evidence. There’s also compelling research findings about the human impacts of access to views outside, a close corollary to access to daylight.
Two different studies were conducted within the offices of the municipal utility district in California. The first study tested the performance of 100 workers in an incoming call centre and the second study looked at the performance of 200 other office workers using a series of short cognitive assessment tests. At the end of the testing it was clear that views to the outside from an employee’s workstation had a direct affect on workers’ performance:
“A better view was the most consistent explanatory variable associated with improved office worker performance, in six out of eight outcomes considered. Views from a workstation were rated for both primary view (angular size of window view while looking at the desktop computer monitor) and break view (angular size of view from other seated vantage points in the cubicle). Both types of view were rated on a scale of 0-5 first based on size, and secondarily by vegetation content. Workers in the Call Center were found to process calls 7% to 12% faster when they had the best possible view versus those with no view. Office workers were found to perform 10% to 25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall when they had the best possible view versus those with no view.” (Windows and Offices: A Study of Office Worker Performance and the Indoor Environment.)
Not only did the study find that views to the outdoors boosted employee performance, it found that workers with the best views reported better health conditions, while reports of increased fatigue were most strongly associated with a lack of view.
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