11 May 2011, 10:08 AM
For those affected by light pollution, seeing stars can be a rare event. To raise awareness of the problem, and assess just how bad the pollution is, earlier this year the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and Campaign for Dark Skies (CfDS), organised a survey. As part of Star Count week over 2,000 people across the country went outside to see how many stars they could count in the constellation of Orion. For most, the answer was not very many.
The results published today show that three in five (59 per cent) people taking part could see just 10 or fewer stars within Orion - indicating severe light pollution in their area. Only eight per cent of participants could see more then 20 stars and just one per cent of people had truly dark skies, seeing 30 or more stars.
The proportion of people living with severe light pollution was up from 54 per cent in 2007 to 59 per cent this year. The results suggest that, despite good initiatives to reduce light pollution in some places, the contamination of Britain’s night skies continues largely unabated.
Bob Mizon, Campaign for Dark Skies Coordinator, says: “The findings of this year’s survey are very worrying. It’s like a veil of light is being drawn across the night sky, denying many people the beauty of a truly starry night. Many children growing up today will never see the Milky Way; never see the unimaginable glory of billions of visible stars shining above them.”
Emma Marrington, CPRE Rural Policy Campaigner, says: “Light pollution damages the character of the countryside and blurs the distinction between town and country. But this isn’t just about the effect on stargazing; light pollution can disrupt wildlife and badly affect people’s sleeping patterns.”
Campaigners are calling for better planning regulations to restrict unnecessary lighting, as well as asking for those responsible for outdoor lighting to make sure they are using the right lighting in the right place. Not only would that help to prevent light pollution, it would save money and cut carbon emissions. In 2009 Councils collectively spent £532 million on street lighting which accounted for around 5-10 per cent of each council’s carbon emissions.
Some councils are addressing the issue already, for instance Nottingham City Council is embarking on a 25 year PFI project to replace circa 27,000 Lighting columns, 10,000 Lanterns and 6,000 illuminated signs, bollards and beacons. The aim of the initiative is to save money, energy and reduce light spillage. Coventry City Council is proposing to replace 28,000 of its 32,000 street lights over the next five years. Dimmer switch technology will be fitted to thousands of replacement street lights in Coventry to help save energy and money.
Surrey County Council is running a similar initiative to replace the 89,000 street lights in the county. Lights will be linked to a central system which will allow different lighting levels across Surrey, and Norfolk County Council is about to begin a street light switch-off trial in many areas between midnight and 5am. The primary reasons are energy and cost saving but it will have an impact on levels of light pollution.
The Natural Environment White Paper, to be published by the Government next month should also include firm proposals for tackling light pollution, which would both improve the quality of our countryside and people’s enjoyment of it.
Emma Marrington concluded: “This is a problem that can be resolved if Government and local authorities introduce policies to control lighting and individuals take action to use lighting wisely.
“All too often we hear poor excuses for bad or excessive lighting, from crime prevention to health and safety but in many cases these are not backed by hard evidence and are nothing more than a flimsy excuse for poor planning or environmental indifference. The evidence gathered during this year’s Star Count Week shows that we need to take action now to stop the growing spread of light pollution.”
The Star Count Survey carried out by 2188 volunteers between 31 January 2011 and 06 February 2011. Participants were instructed to pick a clear night, with no haze or clouds, to count the number of stars in the constellation of Orion bounded by the four distinctive bright stars in the constellation. The star count did not include these four corner stars – only those within this rectangular boundary – but did include the stars in the middle known as Orion's three-star belt. Full data table are available on request from the CPRE.
CPRE and CfDS hope to make the Star Count Week an annual event that will engage thousands of people in the campaign against light pollution. The 2011 event, which took place from 31 January to 6 February, was backed by a host of celebrities including BBC astronomer Mark Thompson, former Blur bassist Alex James and CPRE President Bill Bryson.