Light and noise pollution

Posted: Friday, March 12, 2010

In the late 1940s, my cousin Johnny and I once spent a summer night sleeping under the stars in the back yard at my grandparent's house. The sky was clear, and, except for starlight, perfectly black. On our backs, we gazed in wonder at star-spangled space. That was the first time I saw a shooting star.

In Sterling, where I live now, the view of the sky is nowhere near clear. The night sky is lit not from stars, but from unneeded street lights and the lights at Sterling Elementary School. Closer to home, porch lights and flood lights adulterate what would otherwise be natural darkness.

I'm not alone in disliking light pollution. In the early 1980s, a movement began that seeks to eliminate unwanted, unneeded illumination on a global scale. The mission of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is " to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting."

The IDA defines light pollution as " any adverse effect of artificial light, including sky glow, glare, light trespass, light clutter, decreased visibility at night and energy waste."

Good reasons abound for eliminating light pollution. According to the IDA, it wastes energy, causes problems for scientists and astronomers, disrupts nocturnal wildlife and ecological balance, and has been linked to negative consequences for human health.

To me, light pollution is one of many subtle things that degrades the outdoors. A spectacular night sky isn't quite so spectacular when it's obscured by light pollution. Within reason, we ought to do what we can to reduce it.

I harbor similar feelings about noise pollution. Like light, noise has changed the Alaskan outdoors.

In 1956, when I first came to Alaska, it was still a territory. I lived in Fairbanks while stationed at Ladd Air Force Base, later to become Fort Wainwright. Alaska was still a territory. Other than the main highways, there were few roads, so most people lived in towns and villages. Electric service was pretty much limited to a few of the larger towns.

While walking a trail a short distance from Fairbanks, I experienced for the first time in my life complete silence. I had never before thought about, let alone appreciated, a total lack of sound. On the contrary, I had installed a noisy exhaust system on my car and longed for the day when I could afford a more powerful amplifier and bigger speakers for my hi-fi. At that time in my life, silence was just a vacuum to be filled with noise.

As I've matured and Alaska has "progressed," I've come to appreciate silence, possibly because it's now so rare. It's difficult to escape noise. On a large part of the 2-million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, you can hear the noise of gas field machinery. On a smaller scale, people allow dogs to bark incessantly and operate noisy equipment all hours of the night.

If we would all be a little more conscious of our actions, much light and sound pollution would go away. Cutting back on exterior lighting is not only easy, but thrifty. And it's only neighborly to stop dogs from barking, to not operate noisy motorized equipment at night, and to not shoot guns or fireworks in your residential subdivision.

The payoff is not just friendlier neighbors, but a more natural and enjoyable outdoors.

Writer Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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