A three day meeting aimed at educating the public about the impact of light pollution has just concluded in the high desert of Chile. Astronomers, doctors, and lighting professionals were among the speakers seeking to illuminate the links between disease and social problems and the increasing penetration of urban light into the night sky.
ALMA ARRAY, ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE (ESO/C.MALIN cristophermalin.com) - High in Chile's Atacama desert, astronomers like Christopher Malin of the European Space Observatory (ESO) take full advantage of the absence of light to record spectactular time-lapse sequences of the stars in the sky. At an altitude of 5000 metres, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is the largest astronomical project in the world, but its ability to chart the deepest regions of the universe is dependent on darkness, uninterupted by light pollution.
When most people think of pollution they imagine tall smokestacks spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or factories spilling green sludge into lakes and streams.
But an event held near the ESO in the Atacama desert last week, aimed to shed light on the polluting effects of street lamps, lit parking lots, neon signs and other forms of glowing artificial light that flood the night's sky from cities and towns. Light pollution not only obscures the view of stars in the sky, it also has an impact on human behaviour.
The Noche Zero, or Zero Night seminars were designed to draw attention to light pollution and its affects while exploring ways to diminish its negative impact.
Experts here say although most people in urban areas don't realize it, the glowing city lights that allow them to see at night, travel safely through dark stretches of road, or advertise soft drinks, have a direct negative affect on their health and well-being. The point to a growing body of scientific evidence that says the constant glow not only blocks out the beauty of a star-filled sky, but can also alter metabolism in humans, especially in cells in the eye, and can modify the production of hormones including melatonin leading to direct adverse affects in their quality of life.
Participants like neurology professor George Bernard, who led a seminar on light and the human body, say they recognize the benefits of artificial light, but that it is time to start looking for alternative ways to get the light we need and minimize the adverse affects while also reducing energy consumption and preserving the natural beauty of a pristine nighttime sky, even in our cities.
"Now that we understand light affects humans biologically, there will be opportunities to redesign environments to improve lighting that will not only have good stimulus for the visual system, be energy efficient, saving money, but also improve the health and the well-being of people who live inside of these buildings," Bernard said.
The event's organizers invited participants to the Atacama Dessert because the nights here are among the darkest on the planet. Not only is it a hotspot for astronomers, it is also a magnet for tourists hoping for a glimpse of a star painted ceiling foreign to urban dwellers from population centers in Europe, the United States or even Latin Americawhere city residents can spot just a handful of sparkling stars on a clear night.
The ESO's Massimo Tarenghi says light pollution and the need to preserve darkness, is a global issue.
"This Noche Zero combines different cultures. The people look in the sky, people look at the earth, both interested in light, of course, a different type of light, but light is very important for human beings," Tarenghi said.
Lighting designer Mike Major said he came to the event to work with other experts to help design lighting systems for the future that could someday minimize the side effects of artificial light.
"This conference is a really amazing opportunity for lighting designers, architects, astronomers, scientists to talk about this issue because its very important for us and the future of humanity," Major said.
The side affects of artificial light have not reached most of Chile to the extent it has many more developed countries in Europe or like Japan, and the affects are far from the dry highlands of the Atacama Dessert in the northern stretches of the country, but activists say it is not too early to consider new ways to provide the light we need.
The event is largely educational and focuses on seminars and discussions surrounding artificial light and astronomy, but on Thursday (October 18) the focus shifted to creating a manifest to bring their ideas together in a document to present to the world.
"We are going to close this with the Atacama manifest to be able to better the future of the lighting of the world's cities from the Atacama Dessert, where the best nights are, to plan the nights of the future," the director of Noche Zero, Paulina Villalobo said.
In addition to the seminars the event provided activities free to the public to inform attendees on technical aspects of light pollution and astronomy and screened films on the issue and also provided activities for children.
Organisers say education is crucial to future solutions for achieving balance between the needs of city dwellers and the return of natural harmony between the modern world and the darkness.