Harrisonburg’s bright lights have become so blinding, admirers of the dark night sky have begun to take notice and are looking to shed light — but not too much light — on safer and more efficient methods of illumination.
Thursday evening, students and local residents gathered in the Wilson Hall auditorium to listen to a selection of guests address light pollution both in Harrisonburg and around JMU’s campus.
The event, “The Campus at Night: Controlling Light Pollution at JMU While Saving Money and Improving Safety,” sought to clear up misconceptions about safety and lighting, and offered alternative options in order to curtail wasteful energy and spending around the city.
The concerns of the room trickled down to the amount of money and energy that is being wasted by JMU — particularly when athletic fields and campus buildings stay perpetually illuminated throughout the night, despite not being used.
For Shanil Virani, JMU’s planetarium director, using excess money and resources to keep parking lots and athletic fields lit at night is costly, especially in a time where cities such as Harrisonburg are experiencing dwindling budgets.
“The National Dark Sky Association estimates that up to $110 billion is wasted every year by light that we send directly up into space that does no one no good,” Virani said. “E.T. is not looking for us. That light serves absolutely no purpose.”
The evening began with a brief video that detailed the health risks people face as a result of light pollution at night, such as disruptions in circadian rhythms and higher risks of breast and prostate cancer.
Jeff Storey, a junior in the adult degree program, made a similar video and played it for the audience. He employed the help of Daniel Stein, a sophomore computer information systems and media arts and design double major, to narrate the video.
Storey and Stein strung together roughly 15,000 frames for the time- lapse video, even making trips into West Virginia to find areas with darker skies and brighter stars to contrast with scenes of the shrouded nighttime sky of Harrisonburg.
Storey also shares a concern with the effect that light pollution is having on nocturnal species, as well as certain birds who’ve been gravely affected by disorienting lights.
“About a billion birds every year fly into buildings, and they get lost, and they starve to death and they have heart attacks because they’re following the wrong migratory paths,” Storey said.
Laura Greenleaf, a JMU alumna and co-leader of the Virginia chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association, spoke during the event about the different methods that are being used to limit the unnecessary waste of energy attributed to light pollution.
During her presentation, she suggested dimming lights at night, using lights at lower levels to illuminate footpaths and retrofitting fixtures with shields to solely direct light downwards.
She found that LEDs held a key advantage over older lights because of how quickly and easily one could manipulate their intensity, or turn them off.
Greenleaf, who grew up and spent most of her life in the solitude of northern Fauquier County, Va. has concerns that stem from the disappearing night sky that she was once very familiar with and fond of.
“Forty thousand years of human history guided by the stars, and we have been conducting an experiment on our world, and ourselves, for less than a century,” Greenleaf said. “I think we’re figuring out it’s not going very well.”
Regina Lawson, the chief of police at Wake Forest University, was the final speaker for the evening, and expressed her concerns about the misconceptions of lighting and safety.
While people generally believe more lighting promotes safer environments, Lawson and others are finding that the glare and shadows given off by bright lights can often distort a person’s view of a potential perpetrator.
“There’s not really a lot of empirical data that supports that more lighting makes anything safer,” Lawson said. “A shopping mall, a parking deck or a college campus — it’s really the perception that makes the individual feel safer.”
In the instance of heightened crime, communities often feel an impulse to add lights to certain areas without doing proper research, which could also be harmful to the night sky.
“I will say that a lot of times, any community where there’s a campus or just a neighborhood, if something goes wrong, the first thing they want to do is add more lighting, and that’s kind of just a typical knee-jerk reaction,” Lawson said. “Whether it’s effective or not could be argued or debated.”
Following the presentation, a panel of JMU students and speakers from the event took questions from the audience. Students and residents of the Harrisonburg community asked the panel about JMU’s use of the stadium lights at night.
Although there wasn’t a member of the JMU administration on the panel, Mark Warner, the senior vice president of student affairs and university planning, attended the event and answered questions out of his own interest and concern; he addressed the questions regarding JMU’s campus to the best of his ability.
“I’m here because I care about this. I’m one of those people who, at 5:30 in the morning, am looking at the stars,” Warner said. “We’re working really hard to make sure we’re taking the right actions.”
Local residents also voiced their problems with growing light pollution within the community, including Caroline Lubert, a math and statistics professor at JMU, and wife to JMU political science professor Howard Lubert.
Mr. and Mrs. Lubert have been Harrisonburg residents for many years, and since JMU purchased Memorial Hall, they’ve noticed that the lights in the parking lot and baseball stadium of the school are affecting their daughter’s sleep at night.
“Our friends who have a little boy, they live one block away from us, and they had to do stuff with his bedroom lights — thicker blinds — because the lighting goes on all night,” Mrs. Lubert said.
Efforts have been made by Mr. and Mrs. Lubert in the past to reduce the excessive lighting, but their efforts were to no avail, and Mrs. Lubert seemed particularly bothered by the lack of attention JMU’s administration gave to the the city’s concerns.
“I think it was disappointing that there weren’t people from the upper administration here, on this panel, ready to answer questions,” Mrs. Lubert said. “I think it would’ve been really nice, and shown they’re taking it a lot more seriously, if they’d had someone here who actually was ready to answer the questions, and ready to discuss the issues.”
Paul Bogard, an assistant professor in JMU’s English department, was the moderator for the panel discussion. He wrote the book, “The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light,” which was sold around campus during the week at the events around campus.
“It’s meant to be a book that’s really accessible, and that a student could read, and really enjoy reading and also learn a lot at the same time,” Bogard said.
For Bogard, the rise of overused light and the absence of a dark sky scattered with bright stars is something that separates us from all forms of life before us.
“For almost all of human history, I like to say that we’ve taken what was one of the most common human experiences, which is walking out and coming face to face with the universe, and made it one of the most rare,” Bogard said. “That experience impacts our philosophy, our religion, our spirituality, our mental and spiritual health — all of these things that are hard to quantify, they’re hard to put a dollar sign on, but they are vitally important.”
As Harrisonburg’s lights grow older, the city is preparing to replace its lights. With careful consideration and planning put into implementing more efficient lights and fixtures, the community could benefit from these changes.
“We have the unique opportunity now to make changes that save cities, and the university, a significant amount of money,” Virani said. “We’d be good stewards for the environment, we would get our night back and we’d do a better job of protecting our planet for the next generation of people to follow us.”
Thursday evening’s panel discussion was part of Starry Night Harrisonburg’s week long event that took place from Monday, March 24 to Saturday, March 29 and sought to bring light to the wasteful, hazardous implications of light pollution in Harrisonburg and around JMU.
Contact Patrick Mortiere at email@example.com.
Correction: In the original print and online story Howard Lubert's position was misidentified. He is a professor of political science, not an associate professor.