Fighting the Brightness
The world is becoming lighter, but what does that mean for the Arctic?
WORDS SHANEY HUDSON
From the bioluminescence that swirls in the fjords to the campfires that keep the dark at bay, light has always brought with it an element of comfort and safety. It’s a chance to navigate the darkness and find a way home.
Today, artificial light is estimated to increase by at least two per cent globally each year, both in terms of its radiance and the area being illuminated. Technology has meant a glow is now a constant in our world, with industry, infrastructure and a global economy demanding the lights stay on 24 hours a day.
Norway at its best. Photo: Michael Heymann / photo competition
A growing issue
For all the safety and security it affords society, however, light pollution is becoming an increasing problem. There are three types: direct glare, the reflection of light, and sky glow, where light bounces off clouds and molecule particles in the air. For the average city dweller, light pollution might mean the stars just aren’t as bright. For the aurora watcher, it means they might not be able to see this phenomenon dancing across the sky. For the natural world, though, it can be the difference between life or death. From navigation to food chain disruption, artificial light heavily influences the environment. Marine seabirds have shown to be at increased risk from predators by having their roosting and nesting sites illuminated, while baby turtle hatchlings have become disoriented by lights set up on beaches where they hatch. “Even in the darkness, light is a regulating factor for most life,” says Professor Jørgen Berge from The University Centre in Svalbard. “And when we come in and turn on lights then we are really affecting organisms around us.”
“The bioluminescence can be absolutely amazing sometimes, but it’s also frightening because you feel so small, so insanely small, in this big black world.”
— Professor Jørgen Berge
One of nature's greatest spectacles. Photo: Hurtigruten
Getting its measure
Two main methods have been developed to measure light pollution. The first, the Bortle scale, is a nine-level scale that measures the brightness of the night sky. The second is the Sky Quality Meter, or SQM, which is an instrument that measures and quantifies the luminance in the sky. Both were developed for astronomers to measure the quality of the sky for stargazing, rather than its impact on wildlife. But if you’ve ever watched a moth gravitate to a flame, it’s clear light has an influence on living things – and this impact is much harder to measure, especially in the Arctic during the polar winter. Professor Berge has been trying to do just that. While many assumed that marine life was dormant in the Arctic during the polar winter, this has proved to not be the case. “The polar night is an important part of the life cycle of most Arctic organisms,” says Berge. By turning off his research ship’s lights during the polar winter, Berge showed micro-organisms were impacted by light: both being repelled by and attracted to it in depths of up to 200 metres. “Organisms are sort of hardwired to respond to light,” says Berge. “Zooplankton, for instance, perform a vertical migration during polar night, and are adapted and acclimatised to detect and respond to extremely small changes in light.” Thinning sea ice, another issue the Arctic is facing, also has consequences for light pollution. Ice and snow cover is an extremely efficient way of keeping light out, reflecting 99 per cent of incoming light. As it thins, both natural and artificial light sources can penetrate into an otherwise dark environment. And as sea ice decreases, there will be more ships traversing Arctic waters, with most lit like Christmas trees for safety purposes.
Turning it off
So what can be done? Surprisingly, quite a bit. At an individual level, the simple thing to do is turn off the lights when you’re not using them. But governments can also influence change by regulating, monitoring and setting best practice guidelines to assist wildlife. In 2020 the Australian government formally set out national guidelines for light pollution for wildlife, highlighting the need for best practice not only in light design, but also adaptive management for impacted wilderness areas.
Port by night, Norway. Photo: Hurtigruten
And there have been moves not only to protect the wildlife, but preserve the night sky for the sheer sake of its magnificent glory. Reykjavik in Iceland recently turned off the lights in order for citizens to appreciate the sheer ambience of the night sky. There have been moves globally to establish Dark Sky Preserves, recognising and protecting places that offer amazing stargazing opportunities. Dark sky tourism is also growing, with more people visiting the far north to see the northern lights. And while Berge studies the science behind the lights, he appreciates the awe and wonder the darkness brings. “The bioluminescence can be absolutely amazing sometimes, but it’s also frightening because you feel so small, so insanely small, in this big black world,” says Berge. “It’s beautiful in the sense that you see and hear things you didn’t see or hear before. “There’s a life out there that is completely hidden.”