Tasmania's "Pristine darkness" needs protection from light pollution

One of Tasmania’s most beautiful and fascinating views is being destroyed by light pollution, warns a serious astro-photographer, and if humans are not careful we may lose the night skies.

Tasmanian David Lennon, 20, has been watching stars through his camera’s lens since he was a teenager.

He said light pollution brightens the night sky, causing glare and urban sky-glow, and prevents humans from seeing the stars.

“I am beginning to notice it’s presence more drastically,” he said.

“Even just over the past couple of years I have observed the natural night sky fading to a greater extent.  It makes me wonder, do we really need as many lights on as there are?”

The International Dark-Sky Association began in 1988 to protect the world against light pollution, which is defined as the overuse of artificial lighting that is leading to the loss of our starry-night skies.

More than 80 per cent of the international population now live under light pollution, with almost 80 countries documenting a rapid or extraordinary increase in pollution between 2012 and 2016. 

The reality is that children living in megacities or built-up, urban or residential areas are growing up without ever seeing the stars. 

International Dark Sky Association Tasmania founder Landon Bannister, who is a lighting specialist, tells the story of a friend's child living in Los Angeles who upon seeing the stars for the first time in Australia started crying in fright.

"His parents thought he was crying because he was so awe-inspired by the stars, but he was actually crying out of fear because he had grown up never seeing them."

Landon Bannister

"That is just really sad.  It is one of the reasons why we started the Dark Skies chapter in Tasmania.  It may be that in another thirty to forty years our children will also grow up in the same way.  That is pretty much what happens now for those living in inner Melbourne and Sydney," he said.

"We also realised that light pollution coming from Launceston and Hobart had started to creep into our world heritage areas, and we need to protect that.” 

Mr Bannister said Tasmania was still in a position to protect itself from light pollution and take advantage of its "pristine darkness".

The aim of Dark Skies Tasmania, he said, is to raise awareness about light pollution, be an advocate for dark sky tourism and other dark city marketing opportunities, and lobby for a dark sky park in the state. 

In astrological circles Tasmania is already known as a hot spot for its dark skies, but Mr Bannister said the state was not yet capitalising on the opportunity. 

International Dark Skies Tasmania founder Landon Bannister is a commercial lighting specialist and would like to see better lighting policy to prevent light pollution.

International Dark Skies Tasmania founder Landon Bannister is a commercial lighting specialist and would like to see better lighting policy to prevent light pollution.

"We could market our dark skies for tourism.  Many people across the world don't have access to the stars so when they go on holiday they want to see them,” he said.

"And we would love to see a dark sky park in Tasmania.”

Mr Bannister said having amazing dark skies was a good start for the development of such a park, but that policy makers needed to be on board. 

“You obviously need good dark skies but it really comes down to having an area that is protected from light pollution.  You need to limit the amount of light being used, and start to implement good lighting policy," he said.

“We are already known as the green, environmental state, and I think we could really lead Australia to become a place that is known for its responsible night-time lighting, where we don't over-light our cities, and don't end up like major cities across Australia."  

The International Dark Sky Association defines a dark sky park as land that has exceptional starry nights, and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage and public enjoyment. 

Such parks exist across the world, with the US having more than ten dark parks, and Chile well-known for its dark skies and "astro-tourism". 

Australia has just one dark sky park located in Warrumbungle in New South Wales, a 24 hectare, publicly accessible patch of land that was granted its dark skies status in 2016. 

From here, billions of stars can be seen stretching across the night sky, with the milky way bright and visible.

These stars featured heavily in the belief systems of the Gamilaroi people, who are the original owners of Warrumbungle and believe that the Emu in the Sky floats among the stars of the milky way, flying across the heavens keeping watch over the land. 

For Australia’s indigenous populations the stars and moon were a significant part of life, where they used the stars to navigate their lives on the land, and spoke of them often in Dreamtime stories.

They were not alone, with ancient populations across the world using the stars for religion, agricultural purposes such as knowing when the seasons were beginning, high tide indicators, and navigation on land and sea.

Mr Bannister questions what would happen to humans if the night skies were lost altogether. 

"It is an incredible thing to be able to look up in wonder and amazement at the stars, and it is a shame that we could lose that,” he said.

David Lennon does not want to see Tasmania's stars disappear.

David Lennon does not want to see Tasmania's stars disappear.

“We really don't know what the impact of that loss will be.”

University of Melbourne behavioural ecologist Theresa Jones has researched the impact that artificial night lighting has on biological processes in humans and animals.

She said the increased use of artificial lighting was having an impact on the physiology of humans, animals, insects and plants.

One significant impact is related to the chemical melatonin, which regulates circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles in humans and both nocturnal and diurnal animals. 

Dr Jones said when night-time falls, the production of melatonin in the body stops, signalling the body to shut down and go to sleep, and conversely, when daylight breaks, the body wakes up.

"Animals are shifting their behaviours because of the extra lights at night," Dr Jones said.

"Animals that are active during the day and sleep at night suddenly have their day time extended because there is no darkness anymore, and nocturnal animals who want to be active in the dark might try to move away from their normal habitats to escape from the light," she said.

"Changing the amount of light at night also means we are masking the seasons, which can lead to reproduction changes where offspring are born at the wrong time of the year, and can then lead to food availability issues where foods aren't produced at the right time." 

For Mr Bannister the swathe of research that exists on the impacts of light pollution on animal species was a big motivator for change. 

"It's starting to throw out bird migration where birds need the stars to navigate, loggerhead turtles are in massive decline because they use moonlight to find places to hatch their eggs but are seeing the big bright lights of cities and going the wrong way, and a Germany study found that the biomass of insects is 30 per cent less than it was a decade ago, with links to light pollution, which has flow on affects for pollination and fauna," he said.

More concerning are the studies of the impacts on human health, where sleep disorders, depression and emotional disorders are being linked to light and disruption of circadian rhythms.

"Artificial light is now also linked to things like obesity, diabetes and even breast cancer,” Mr Bannister. 

“In Denmark night shift workers sued the government because of light issues, where 82 workers developed breast cancer that was linked to working in a too-brightly lit environment at night."  

Mr Bannister explained that the dark-skies movement was not against the use of artificial light, rather, it urged society to use light in appropriate and efficient ways.

He said very few governments and policy makers were attuned to the light pollution problem, and so very "ordinary" urban lighting decisions were being made. 

"Globally we estimate that over 30 per cent of lighting outdoors is actually wasted, which is quite considerable when 20 per cent of our total energy use is used on outdoor lighting," he said.

"As an example of bad urban lighting, my street lights were upgraded recently.  They are shooting half of their light sideways so the light is not hitting the street where people need them and instead are shining in someone's front yard." 

Compounding this issue is the overuse of LED lighting.

Mr Barrister said energy efficiencies available from LED were not being realised because a greater number of lights are now being installed.

He said the higher levels of blue-light in LED, which has the affect of being a whiter-light, penetrate the atmosphere at greater levels than traditional light sources, and caused increased "sky-glow".

Melatonin is also especially sensitive to this blue LED light, and thus having a greater impact on circadian rhythms. 

"It is just about implementing common sense solutions, putting light where light is needed, controlling the light, and removing the glare,” Mr Barrister said.

“Does our city need to be as bright at three in the morning as it does at nine pm?  If we have pathways should they be on motion sensors? Do lights need to be on all the time when no-one is in the park?"

Mr Bannister said humans evolved from sitting around campfires and walking by moonlight, where their bodies are designed for warm, low level light of an evening, and our eyes, via pupil dilation and un-dilation, were designed to protect themselves from harsh lighting glare. 

An example of bright night-time lighting which Mr Bannister says will not promote commercial activity as people will not want to stay in such areas.

An example of bright night-time lighting which Mr Bannister says will not promote commercial activity as people will not want to stay in such areas.

"Lighting affects our emotions.  If our outdoor environments are bright and harsh of an evening then we are not going to want to stay in them because it doesn't feel natural to us," he said.

He used the example of hospitality lighting, as well as lighting used at the festival Dark Mofo, whose director Leigh Carmichael is a member of the Dark Sky movement, and who recently indicated that he would like to see all city lights dimmed as part of next year’s event. 

"The hospitality industry trades on lighting, spending a lot of time and effort on low-level lighting because they want you to stay longer and spend more,” Mr Bannister said.

“We need to do that for our cities.  We don’t need to make our cities brighter at night by putting in more lighting and creating a day-time environment.  Instead we need to think about them as a totally separate environment, to create dual economies, and be aware of night-time lighting needs." 

He said the use of fire and red light throughout Dark Mofo was a brilliant idea.

“Red as a visual light source is a lot easier to look at, a lot less glarey, and it cuts about 80 per cent of light, so the whole city dims,” he said.

“It is a great to see more people out at that time of year, and for me, I’m sure that the feeling of the city – being a little bit dimmer, less glary and more human – plays a big part in that.”

For those like Mr Lennon, who constantly look to the stars for creative inspiration, the overuse of artificial lighting is a threat to Tasmania’s wild natural, untamed uniqueness, and the human psyche. 

“I personally feel rather enclosed in large cities when you look up and can’t see past the urban sky glow above you.  [So] I hope to continue to take photos of the night sky, to help inspire others to stargaze, and just take it all in,” he said.

David Lennon captures the night skies above Goats Bluff

David Lennon captures the night skies above Goats Bluff