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Science

Reclaiming our view of the night sky

Diane Knutson.jpg
Lori Walsh
/
SDPB
Diane Knutson is founder of the International Dark Sky Association's South Dakota chapter

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

When you look to the stars, what do you see? That probably depends upon how much light pollution surrounds the place where you live. That light pollution can impact not only your view, but your health and the health of the ecosystem.

This is International Dark Sky Week. Diane Knutson is the founder of the South Dakota Chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association.

The following transcript was autogenerated and edited for clarity.

Lori Walsh:

Welcome back, Diane. Thanks for being here.

Diane Knutson:

I'm glad to be here today.

Lori Walsh:

We learned so much during pandemic times about how human activity impacts the natural world in these really immediate ways. Did we learn some of these things too, when it comes to light pollution?

Diane Knutson:

Yeah, there's a lot of light pollution, I think, that changed a little bit. People were more at home, and businesses maybe weren't operating as much, but yet they still had their lights on too. So we didn't see as big of a change, but there were some. And I think with International Dark Sky Week happening this week, that brings to our attention that we can raise awareness about the importance of what light pollution is and how we can have solutions to solve it.

Lori Walsh:

So many South Dakotans who grew up, or are growing up, in a rural setting have a different relationship with light than some people who grew up in an urban setting. Are we losing the memory of what it was like to grow up in darkness?

Diane Knutson:

In about a single generation, we've lost that ability to see the stars, gaze at the stars, and know what that relationship is with being able to see our universe. And I hear a lot of stories about people that like to grow up in the country because they have that view, but that's being impacted and encroached upon with the sprawl of light pollution coming from cities, because it doesn't stay in the city, it goes outward and spreads. As our population increases, our light pollution amount is increasing at double the rate. So we're using much more light than we used to, and even in less populated areas, that per capita has a lot more light pollution than even cities do, sometimes, if you're looking at it per person.

Lori Walsh:

What impact does it have on our health? What are some of the connections that we know of, about human health?

Diane Knutson:

Having exposure to light at night reduces our ability to create melatonin, which is the chemical that helps us sleep. And so getting a really good night sleep is important. And having that come into our bedroom windows, or just having it spread, we are exposed to it... It helps us sleep better if we have less light pollution.

Lori Walsh:

And then regarding our ecosystem. What changes are happening as light pollution continues to expand and spread?

Diane Knutson:

We're seeing it impact a variety of wildlife. All life on earth has evolved with a night and day cycle. Every day has a night. But oftentimes, we as creatures, as humans, are sleeping during the night, so we don't think about that as much. But there's a lot of night activity with owls, and they can't hunt as effectively when there's light. There's also fireflies, which we have here (in South Dakota). They are impacted because their flashes can't be seen against the drop of the light. So it's harder and harder for them to survive with that in the background.

Lori Walsh:

What are some of the things we can do if we're living in a small town, on a farm, or in an urban setting? What are the things we can control?

Diane Knutson:

Lighting can be looked at and evaluated. There's a home certification program, where you can self-certify your location — whether it be a home or a ranch or farm, or business — and evaluate. What are my lights? How are they being used? Can they be dimmed, put on a motion sensor, controlled? Or can they be used with less intensity and directed and targeted down where that light is intended, so it's not going up into the atmosphere and spreading across lines?

Lori Walsh:

One of my favorite things is simply to not use lights in the evening, especially now that we're starting to have slightly longer days, because it does remind me of childhood, when that's what we did. And it's saving a lot of money...

Diane Knutson:

It does.

Lori Walsh:

... in a time of inflation, and every penny counting, dimming the lights is also good for your bottom line. How about from a policy standpoint? Municipalities and communities, what are some of the conversations they can have about decisions we make collectively?

Diane Knutson:

With International Dark Sky Week, Rapid Cities had a proclamation to recognize that and also be mindful of their lighting. And that can be a statewide effort, a city effort, even a county effort, where we're looking at lights that we're using — can they be dimmed? Can we use less light? We save money. We don't need as much. When we create up-light, with adding more lighting, then another area looks darker. And then you add that lighting and the other area looks darker.

Diane Knutson:

So they can have policies in place where there's less light trespass. Looking at the types of lumens that they're using and the color temperatures that they're using, and where that direction is happening can also help.

Lori Walsh:

Do you find, as you talk to people about this, that there's a quick acceptance of the need to reduce light pollution? Because some of this does sound very easy. Some of it's more complicated, but much of this is fairly simple. Do you find that people respond to it from a positive standpoint?

Diane Knutson:

It's a mixed bag. There's a lot of positive. I like seeing the stars, I like protecting wildlife, and turning the switch off is really simple. It's one of those types of pollutions that can be solved instantaneously. You flip the switch and it's done.

Diane Knutson:

There's others where we're getting some pushback. We like to use decorative lighting and we like to light up our gardens, and we like to ... because we're comfortable as humans with the sense of that light, and that draws us in.

I think it's important to be mindful of how we're using lighting. Is it worth the cost?

Lori Walsh:

Interesting. International Dark Sky Week. What's happening around the world?

Diane Knutson:

Yeah. There are even art contests, poetry contests, photography contests, galleries, speakers, programs, virtual events being hosted. They're all listed on darksky.org, where you can tune in virtually or attend in person.

Lori Walsh:

Dan Knutson, founder of South Dakota chapter of International Dark Sky Association, thank you so much for being here. We'll talk to you next time.

Diane Knutson:

Thanks, Lori. Appreciate it.