Are we making our days shorter with artificial lighting?

Developing countries are good at doing just that, developing. What they can fail to do, however, is recognize when their development may be more detrimental than helpful to its’ residents.

A recent article by The Washington Post highlights a new, growing problem the world may come to face as we continue to develop and grow our infrastructures. The study  found that the area of artificially lit area of the Earth’s surface grew by 2.2%** per year from 2012-2016. Which is a pretty big amount of land.

** 2.2% of the Earth’s land is roughly 3,000,000km^2. The majority of results online estimated that the amount of habitable land on Earth is about 150,000,000km^2.

Scientists in this study examined high resolution satellite images from country to country (excluding regions along a similar latitude to Iceland, because their data was not accurate beyond a certain latitude) to measure just how much the artificial lighting was growing and affecting the light in our atmosphere at night. They compared measurements from 2012 (NOTE: taken with a DIFFERENT satelite imaging technology than 2016 images), then compared them to an image from 2016. The growth they observed startled them.

This figure illustrates the lighting change between 2012 and 2016. The blue indicates decreases in light, and the red indicates an increase in light.

What concerned the scientists even more is that the satellite images were not sensitive to blue LED lights, which have recently become more commonplace in work and home spaces. These blue LED lights have been linked to sleep disorders and linked to sleep deficiencies and other health issues. Because the satellites do not pick this kind of  light up, scientists fear the numbers produced from their study may be underestimates of the actual levels of light in the atmosphere. Furthermore, while the LED may reduce the overall “brightness” of a city, the health impacts mentioned before could still be amplified as the LEDs are more readily available and encouraged. The bottom line is no one knows what the effects could be once applied to a global scale.

The results of this study could have wide ranging implications. Literally globe-spanning implications. Exposure to artificial light is being blamed for numerous sleep disorders. The blue LED lights emitted from our phone and computer screens have been proven to keep our brains awake longer if we use them before bed. I am questioning if the obscenely bright lights out on the village green are having an impact on my sleep.

If this 2.2% per year trend continues, within the next 50 years we could, in theory, illuminate all of Earth’s atmosphere with artificial light. What would this look like? They don’t offer a picture, but could we truly ever get rid of night time altogether? I’m not sure, and the article does not really state any negative implications other than the possibility of an increase in sleep disorders.

The study, though widely mentioned, was not actually linked by this article. I had to Google it to find the published study.

It is interesting to me, that there still would be a 2.2% increase, even when there are such large areas of land, possibly uninhabited or more rural areas, where there is little to no light. It seems like a significant number to obtain.

While this is interesting data, I find it all to be pretty logical, and easy to explain. An increase in population will  lead to an increase in the demand for energy/electricity, therefore leading to more lights and more light pollution. This data would be more compelling if it included some possible implications of smaller increases in light in the atmosphere to compare against some of the more prominent research dealing with direct exposure to intense LED lights before bed. Furthermore, they never actually reference how much night time we are losing because of this increase in artificial light. I would be interested to see how much night we lose with every percent increase.

Nevertheless, if more studies similar to this one come out, perhaps it will make us think twice about our energy consumption, and turn out the lights at night.


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