Yorkshire celebrates its eighth Dark Skies Festival from 10 to 26 February with a range of activities based in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors. From night runs, canoeing and night navigation, to astrophotography workshops and mindful experiences, the organisers hope that there will be enough to showcase how special the dark skies are in the region.
There are 18 International Dark Sky Reserves in the world, with the UK having seven reserves, which include the North York Moors and the Yorkshire Dales. International Dark Sky reserves are different from International Dark Sky parks, with Kielder Water and Forest Park being well known as the latter.
These reserves and parks are areas to escape the ever-spreading ‘skyglow’ from cities – as humans are creating a world where artificial light blocks out the natural wonder of the stars. They are also resource-rich information sites, offering talks and tours, to enable individuals and businesses understand more about how they use lighting and its impact on nature.
In 2022, visitor numbers for the two Yorkshire Dark Sky reserves reached nearly 5,000, with an estimated £200,000 generated for local businesses and organisations. I spoke to the Director of Park Services, Kathryn Beardmore, who told me that although it was a difficult process to gain the reserve status, local support from parish councils, businesses and the local population was hugely important. She said that the Dark Skies Festival created an opportunity for a special appreciation of the lack of light pollution and gave people the ability to enjoy the National Parks all year round.
It is estimated that more than 80% of the world’s population currently live under light-polluted skies, so much so that the Milky Way is hidden from one-third of people alive today. The countryside charity CPRE has a useful mapping tool, that allows you to check the level of light pollution and dark skies around England.
Celebrate the darkness
Creating more opportunities for humans to observe the night sky is not the only benefits to reducing the spread of artificial human light. There are many species that use the stars to navigate.
The journal Science Direct was bold in their analysis this month, when they concluded that “Light pollution is a global threat to biodiversity, especially migratory organisms”.
This was supported by new research on the impact of artificial light published by Dr Tim Smyth and the University of Plymouth, which demonstrated that “Urban light pollution is a danger for marine ecosystems”. Dr Smyth was quoted as arguing: “Illuminating coastal environments can also alter the bodily functions of many marine animals. Exposure to artificial light can reduce the reproductive success of fish. And research has also found that it can disorientate turtle hatchlings and affect their ability to reach the safety of the ocean.”
Dr Smyth told me: “There is evidence that LED lighting, with a peak in the blue end of the spectrum, is more harmful to our biological rhythms than the old sodium lighting we used to have. Blue photons are more energetic, and also they pass deeper into water (in general) than red photons, so impacting on neighbouring marine ecosystems to a greater extent.”
He also pointed out that, in an energy crisis, unnecessary illumination also carries a financial cost: “Light which is directed towards space is essentially a waste of energy; at a time of energy crisis, we should be limiting the amount we needlessly waste.”
Better urban planning
Dr Smyth added that there were many steps that councils could take to reduce the use of artificial light and therefore the impact on animal and human life. He noted that these measures might include: “By shading streetlights more effectively (so not so many photons end up going upwards); by ensuring that offices are not lit up unnecessarily; and by limiting the illumination of civic buildings.”
He pointed out that these steps would have to be balanced with the safety of the public though. “There may be grounds in terms of civic safety given for illuminating more brightly.” A reduction in the use and scope of artificial lighting could help us understand that we don’t need to drown out the darkness. Ever-present artificial day could present significant health problems. Humans have blurred the boundary between night and day with their spreading glow of artificial light to such an extent that nature is being confounded and disorientated.
In his 2017 paper, published with Thomas W Davies, entitled ‘Why artificial light at night should be a focus for global change research in the 21st century’, Dr Smyth argued that, “As with greenhouse gas emissions, ALAN [artificial lighting at night] is a globally widespread environmental pollutant”, and concluded that “growing use of night-time lighting will continue to raise numerous ecological, human health and cultural issues, but that opportunities exist to mitigate its impacts by combining novel technologies with sound scientific evidence.”
The lights don’t always have to be on
Towards the end of 2022, bat specialist Johan Eklöf published his book The Darkness Manifesto, where he also outlined the observed impact of artificial light on a host on terrestrial and marine species.
Eklöf argued that, “light pollution is really the easiest of all the environmental problems to solve, at least technically”. He acknowledges that the public may find it difficult at first to accept increased darkness, but welcomes moves by councils such as in Germany, where landmarks are no longer lit in darkness, supporting the argument that better urban planning can lead to reduced ‘skyglow’. “Light and illuminated environments mean safety for many people, so it may be difficult to accept the increased presence of darkness.”
With the growing popularity of the annual ‘Earth Hour’, where individuals, communities and businesses are encouraged to turn off non-essential lights for one hour, Eklöf hopes that our attitudes towards the darkness may turn to one of welcome and for health benefits. “Perception of time changes in the dark; the clock seems to slow down and disappear. There’s long been talk of light therapy for us northerners in the winter. But the fact is that even dark therapy is starting to become a concept.”
Eklöf concludes his book, both with a warning that time is running out, but also with a list of easy steps to begin to change our cultural relationship with darkness. “The question is how much time we have to act. Many of the animals that live under the protection of darkness are on the verge of extinction and with them their invaluable services: pollinating insects, pest-hunting bats. Meanwhile, we humans have ever-worsening sleep and plants are ageing prematurely.”
With the Yorkshire Dark Skies Festival arriving soon, I, for one, will be taking advantage of the opportunity to challenge myself to celebrate the darkness. As Eklöf comments, “The lights don’t always have to be on; there is more to be found in the dark than we think”.