Light Pollution

Cars pass through campus on Interstate 81.

The hazy glow above campus isn’t a pretty night sky — it’s light pollution. According to Shanil Virani, director of JMU’s John C. Wells Planetarium and astronomy professor, nine out of 10 Americans no longer see the Milky Way due to light pollution.

“Starry Nights Harrisonburg,” was co-created by Virani and Paul Bogard, an English professor and author of “The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.” This week of star-related events, which includes discussions on light pollution with experts, culminates with Saturday night’s “Earth Hour,” to educate the public about the growing light pollution problem in Harrisonburg.

“Some two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real night — that is, real darkness — and nearly all of us live in areas considered polluted by light,” Bogard wrote in his book.

In the second annual “Starry Nights Harrisonburg,” Virani plans to address common misconceptions about light pollution and educate the public about what they can do to help this growing problem.

“Light pollution is a no-brainer, there’s no reason not to fix it,” Jeff Storey, a junior physics major and an employee of the John C. Wells Planetarium, said.

According to Virani, universities usually keep campuses lit at night in order to ensure visibility and student safety, but the way JMU’s campus is lit may be doing more harm than good.

“More use of light doesn’t equal safety,” Virani said. “Smart use of light equals safety.”

Since last year’s events, JMU has made some changes in response to the growing light pollution problem. The Bridgeforth Stadium lights are being turned off more consistently at 11 p.m., and more installations of LED lights are being seen across campus, which are a more efficient light source than the sodium-vapor street lamps used today, according to Virani.

However, Storey feels more changes could be made. Carrier Drive is home to numerous athletic fields and stadium lights, and are often left on when athletes aren’t using the fields.

“When those field hockey lights are on, it’s like driving into the sun; it’s blinding, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Storey said. “They [the lights] could be more carefully designed, and we would save money on how much light we would have to produce.”

Universities were built before the implementation of LED lights and knowledge about proper light fixtures. Now, outdated fixtures are posing a threat to student safety on campus, instead of ensuring it as originally believed.

“With fully shielded fixtures, you take away all of those street lights shining in your eyes, so you can see everything else better, and that lighting more effectively lights up those people so you can see them,” Storey said.

Those acorn-shaped lights, which are seen all the way down South Main Street, are a prime example of outdated fixtures.

“By putting on properly shielded light covers, we actually improve student safety,” Virani said. “So, it’s the opposite of what your intuition suggests. It comes at the added benefit that, because we’re not consuming as much energy to light up the patches of ground that we would need without proper fixtures, it saves money.”

Without the proper fixtures, the light shines up instead of down on the sidewalks. Covered lights allow someone to more easily see a potential threat.

“The argument often made against light pollution is that it comes at the expense of student safety and this is a fallacy,” Virani said. “Large cities like Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., have lots and lots of lights at night [and] crime rates are high.”

According to Virani, the International Dark-Sky Association estimates that, worldwide, we spend more than $110 billion every year lighting up the night and $2 billion in the United States alone. This week aims to change that.

According to the documentary “Starry Nights Harrisonburg,” produced by Breeze photographer and junior studio art major Daniel Stein, the light pollution that Harrisonburg contributes to the night sky is visible over 50 miles away in the George Washington National Forest.

“It [light pollution] affects a lot of different areas in our life and we don’t even realize it,” Storey said.

Last year’s events focused on Harrisonburg and JMU. This year’s focus, however, is to broaden that conversation by expanding events to Mary Baldwin College, the University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University.