Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lights Out!

It's lights out tonight! Lights Out SF is asking all San Franciscans to turn off non-essential lights from 8 to 9 tonight. Turn off your lights and head outside-the city is turning off the lights on the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge and TransAmerica building. Yay!

Why turn off your lights? Saving energy seems to be the big selling point for this event-and that's always a good thing. But saving energy doesn't really capture people's imagination, at least it doesn't mine. Saving energy feels so dour. Turn off your lights, turn down your heat, take shorter showers. All good ideas, don't get me wrong, but who really gets excited about any of those things?

So, what's a non-energy related reason to turn off your lights tonight? My favorite, and this one that makes this event so well-timed, is that lights at night cause light pollution. What's the big deal about light pollution? Light pollution is a huge problem for migrating birds. San Francisco is lucky enough to be smack in the middle of the Pacific Flyway, so this time of year we are flooded with birds making their way south for the winter. It's an incredible time to go birding around here and also, unfortunately, a really dangerous time for some of these birds. Lights left on overnight in skyscrapers disorient the birds. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates collisions with building windows cause 97 to 976 million bird deaths in the United States every year. Turning off the lights in skyscrapers at night can dramatically reduce this number. The AT&T tower in Chicago initiated a program to dim it's lights during bird migration and reduced bird collisions by 80%.

Light pollution also means that we can't see the stars. While this is clearly bad for astronomers, what impact does it really have on the rest of us? I read an essay by Rebecca Solnit the other day that talked about the night sky as a place worth saving because it is available to all of us. Every one of us can go outside and look up and access the huge mystery of the universe, the mystery of life and our lives on this tiny rock. More than once, when someone I love was far away, I've walked outside to look at the moon and been comforted knowing that at least we could look at the same sky, that maybe they were looking at the moon too.

So turn off your lights tonight, have a candlelight dinner and go out and watch some stars. I'll be looking too.

International Dark Sky Association

Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting (bibliography from a conference)