By Beth Little
The Monongahela National Forest has a natural resource that is ignored. It is darkness – an absence of artificial light at night. Around the planet there are fewer and fewer places where the wonders of the night sky are visible; whereas there are many places on the Mon where the Milky Way can be enjoyed. How many people know what phase of the moon we are in, or notice the bright beauty of the morning or evening stars. As more and more people move to rural areas to retire and put up their dusk-to-dawn lights, the blessed darkness is whittled away. Just as darkness is a natural resource, artificial light is pollution.
The website for the International Dark-Sky Association (www.darksky.org) has extensive information about the benefits of dark skies, and the effects of light pollution:
For billions of years, all life has relied on Earth’s predictable rhythm of day and night. It’s encoded in the DNA of all plants and animals. Humans have radically disrupted this cycle by lighting up the night. Plants and animals depend on Earth’s daily cycle of light and dark rhythm to govern life-sustaining behaviors such as reproduction, nourishment, sleep and protection from predators. Scientific evidence suggests that artificial light at night has negative and deadly effects on many creatures including amphibians, birds, mammals, insects and plants.
Nocturnal animals sleep during the day and are active at night. Light pollution radically alters their nighttime environment by turning night into day. According to research scientist Christopher Kyba, for nocturnal animals, “the introduction of artificial light probably represents the most drastic change human beings have made to their environment.” “Predators use light to hunt, and prey species use darkness as cover,” Kyba explains “Near cities, cloudy skies are now hundreds, or even thousands of times brighter than they were 200 years ago. We are only beginning to learn what a drastic effect this has had on nocturnal ecology.” Glare from artificial lights can also impact wetland habitats that are home to amphibians such as frogs and toads, whose nighttime croaking is part of the breeding ritual. Artificial lights disrupt this nocturnal activity, interfering with reproduction and reducing populations.
Humans evolved to the rhythms of the natural light-dark cycle of day and night. The spread of artificial lighting means most of us no longer experience truly dark nights. Research suggests that artificial light at night can negatively affect human health, increasing risks for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, breast cancer and more. Like most life on Earth, humans adhere to a circadian rhythm — our biological clock — a sleep-wake pattern governed by the day-night cycle. Artificial light at night can disrupt that cycle. Our bodies produce the hormone melatonin in response to circadian rhythm. Melatonin helps keep us healthy. It has antioxidant properties, induces sleep, boosts the immune system, lowers cholesterol, and helps the functioning of the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, testes and adrenal glands. Nighttime exposure to artificial light suppresses melatonin production.
So while we are working to protect old growth, threatened and endangered species, trout streams, and beautiful vistas, we can help protect all these things by protecting darkness. Limiting light pollution also saves energy. Light that is not needed, or too much light is wasted energy.
The Watoga State Park Foundation, a non-profit formed in 2015 to support Watoga State Park, has initiated several projects where volunteers help the park. One project is applying to the International Dark-Sky Association for designation of Watoga State Park as a Dark Sky Area. It is a long and intensive process including technical measurements of darkness, changing out lighting for IDA approved fixtures, and more. Future benefits include star parties in coordination with the Green Bank Observatory.
The Watoga darkness team is partnering with the United States Forest Service and preparing to apply for funding from the SRS (Secure Rural Schools) money to help with education about the importance of darkness.
Darkness should be recognized as a primary natural resource to be protected from light pollution.