Light pollution

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Satellite view of Paris at night ISS-35 Night image of Paris, France.jpg
Satellite view of Paris at night
This time exposure photo of New York City at night shows skyglow. Empire State Building Night.jpg
This time exposure photo of New York City at night shows skyglow.
A comparison of the view of the night sky from a small rural town (top) and a metropolitan area (bottom). Light pollution dramatically reduces the visibility of stars. Light pollution country versus city.png
A comparison of the view of the night sky from a small rural town (top) and a metropolitan area (bottom). Light pollution dramatically reduces the visibility of stars.
This nighttime look at Earth, dubbed the Black Marble, provides researchers with a unique perspective of human activities around the globe.
Light pollution impact on visibility of sky & quality of clear starry night - Light pollution dome dragged hundreds of kilometer away from big cities like Tehran in Iran. captured from 4200 m altitude of Mt. Damavand. Light pollution impact.jpg
Light pollution impact on visibility of sky & quality of clear starry night - Light pollution dome dragged hundreds of kilometer away from big cities like Tehran in Iran. captured from 4200 m altitude of Mt. Damavand.

Light pollution is the presence of anthropogenic and artificial light in the night environment. It is exacerbated by excessive, misdirected or obtrusive use of light, but even carefully used light fundamentally alters natural conditions. As a major side-effect of urbanization, it is blamed for compromising health, disrupting ecosystems and spoiling aesthetic environments.



Light pollution is the presence of artificial light in otherwise dark conditions. [1] [2] [3] [4] The term is most commonly used in relation to in the outdoor environment, but is also used to refer to artificial light indoors. Adverse consequences are multiple; some of them may not be known yet. Light pollution competes with starlight in the night sky for urban residents, interferes with astronomical observatories, [5] and, like any other form of pollution, disrupts ecosystems and has adverse health effects. [6] [7]

Light pollution is a side-effect of industrial civilization. Its sources include building exterior and interior lighting, advertising, outdoor area lighting (such as car parks), offices, factories, streetlights, and illuminated sporting venues. It is most severe in highly industrialized, densely populated areas of North America, Europe, and Japan and in major cities in the Middle East and North Africa like Tehran and Cairo, but even relatively small amounts of light can be noticed and create problems. Awareness of the deleterious effects of light pollution began early in the 20th century, [8] but efforts to address effects did not begin until the 1950s. [9] In the 1980s a global dark-sky movement emerged with the founding of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). There are now such educational and advocacy organizations in many countries worldwide.

Impact on energy usage

Energy conservation advocates contend that light pollution must be addressed by changing the habits of society, so that lighting is used more efficiently, with less waste and less creation of unwanted or unneeded illumination.[ citation needed ] Several industry groups also recognize light pollution as an important issue. For example, the Institution of Lighting Engineers in the United Kingdom provides its members with information about light pollution, the problems it causes, and how to reduce its impact. [10] Although, recent research [11] point that the energy efficiency is not enough to reduce the light pollution because of the rebound effect.

Since not everyone is irritated by the same lighting sources, it is common for one person's light "pollution" to be light that is desirable for another. One example of this is found in advertising, when an advertiser wishes for particular lights to be bright and visible, even though others find them annoying. Other types of light pollution are more certain. For instance, light that accidentally crosses a property boundary and annoys a neighbour is generally wasted and pollutive light.

Disputes are still common when deciding appropriate action; and differences in opinion over what light is considered reasonable, and who should be responsible, mean that negotiation must sometimes take place between parties. Where objective measurement is desired, light levels can be quantified by field measurement or mathematical modeling, with results typically displayed as an isophote map or light contour map. Authorities have also taken a variety of measures for dealing with light pollution, depending on the interests, beliefs and understandings of the society involved.[ citation needed ] Measures range from doing nothing at all, to implementing strict laws and regulations about how lights may be installed and used.


A light pollution source, using a broad spectrum metal halide lamp, pointing upward at Uniqema factory, Gouda, the Netherlands Skybeamer-uniqema-640.jpg
A light pollution source, using a broad spectrum metal halide lamp, pointing upward at Uniqema factory, Gouda, the Netherlands

Light pollution is caused by inefficient or unnecessary use of artificial light. Specific categories of light pollution include light trespass, over-Illumination, Glare, Light Clutter, and Skyglow. A single offending light source often falls into more than one of these categories.

Light trespass

Light trespass occurs when unwanted light enters one's property, for instance, by shining over a neighbour's fence. A common light trespass problem occurs when a strong light enters the window of one's home from the outside, causing problems such as sleep deprivation. A number of cities in the U.S. have developed standards for outdoor lighting to protect the rights of their citizens against light trespass. To assist them, the International Dark-Sky Association has developed a set of model lighting ordinances. [12]

The Dark-Sky Association was started to reduce the light going up into the sky which reduces visibility of stars (see Skyglow below). This is any light which is emitted more than 90° above nadir. By limiting light at this 90° mark they have also reduced the light output in the 80–90° range which creates most of the light trespass issues.

The city of Phoenix, seen from 55 miles away in Surprise, Arizona Phoenix Lights from afar.jpg
The city of Phoenix, seen from 55 miles away in Surprise, Arizona

U.S. federal agencies may also enforce standards and process complaints within their areas of jurisdiction. For instance, in the case of light trespass by white strobe lighting from communication towers in excess of FAA minimum lighting requirements [13] the Federal Communications Commission maintains an Antenna Structure Registration database [14] information which citizens may use to identify offending structures and provides a mechanism for processing citizen inquiries and complaints. [15] The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has also incorporated a credit for reducing the amount of light trespass and sky glow into their environmentally friendly building standard known as LEED.

Light trespass can be reduced by selecting light fixtures which limit the amount of light emitted more than 80° above the nadir. The IESNA definitions include full cutoff (0%), cutoff (10%), and semi-cutoff (20%). (These definitions also include limits on light emitted above 90° to reduce sky glow.)


An office building is illuminated by high pressure sodium (HPS) lamps shining upward. Much light goes into the sky and neighboring apartment blocks, causing light pollution. HPS-lamps.jpg
An office building is illuminated by high pressure sodium (HPS) lamps shining upward. Much light goes into the sky and neighboring apartment blocks, causing light pollution.

Over-illumination is the excessive use of light. Specifically within the United States, over-illumination is responsible for approximately two million barrels of oil per day in energy wasted.[ citation needed ] This is based upon U.S. consumption of equivalent of 18.8 million barrels per day (2,990,000 m3/d) of petroleum. [16] It is further noted in the same U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) source that over 30% of all primary energy is consumed by commercial, industrial and residential sectors. Energy audits of existing buildings demonstrate that the lighting component of residential, commercial and industrial uses consumes about 20–40% of those land uses, variable with region and land use. (Residential use lighting consumes only 10–30% of the energy bill while commercial buildings' major use is lighting.) [17] Thus lighting energy accounts for about four or five million barrels of oil (equivalent) per day. Again energy audit data demonstrates that about 30–60% of energy consumed in lighting is unneeded or gratuitous. [18]

An alternative calculation starts with the fact that commercial building lighting consumes in excess of 81.68 terawatts (1999 data) of electricity, [19] according to the DOE. Thus commercial lighting alone consumes about four to five million barrels per day (equivalent) of petroleum, in line with the alternate rationale above to estimate U.S. lighting energy consumption. Even among developed countries there are large differences in patterns of light use. American cities emit three to five times more light to space per capita compared to German cities. [20]

Over-illumination stems from several factors:

Most of these issues can be readily corrected with available, inexpensive technology, and with resolution of landlord/tenant practices that create barriers to rapid correction of these matters. Most importantly, public awareness would need to improve for industrialized countries to realize the large payoff in reducing over-illumination.

In certain cases an over-illumination lighting technique may be needed. For example, indirect lighting is often used to obtain a "softer" look, since hard direct lighting is generally found less desirable for certain surfaces, such as skin. The indirect lighting method is perceived as more cozy and suits bars, restaurants and living quarters. It is also possible to block the direct lighting effect by adding softening filters or other solutions, though intensity will be reduced.


Glare can be categorized into different types. One such classification is described in a book by Bob Mizon, coordinator for the British Astronomical Association's Campaign for Dark Skies, as follows: [24]

According to Mario Motta, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, "... glare from bad lighting is a public-health hazard—especially the older you become. Glare light scattering in the eye causes loss of contrast and leads to unsafe driving conditions, much like the glare on a dirty windshield from low-angle sunlight or the high beams from an oncoming car." [25] In essence bright and/or badly shielded lights around roads can partially blind drivers or pedestrians and contribute to accidents.

The blinding effect is caused in large part by reduced contrast due to light scattering in the eye by excessive brightness, or to reflection of light from dark areas in the field of vision, with luminance similar to the background luminance. This kind of glare is a particular instance of disability glare, called veiling glare. (This is not the same as loss of accommodation of night vision which is caused by the direct effect of the light itself on the eye.)

View of the Phoenix metro area from the top of Goldmine Trail in the San Tan Mountains San Tan Mountain Lights.jpg
View of the Phoenix metro area from the top of Goldmine Trail in the San Tan Mountains

Light clutter

The Las Vegas Strip displays excessive groupings of colorful lights. This is a classic example of light clutter. Las Vegas Strip.png
The Las Vegas Strip displays excessive groupings of colorful lights. This is a classic example of light clutter.

Light clutter refers to excessive groupings of lights. Groupings of lights may generate confusion, distract from obstacles (including those that they may be intended to illuminate), and potentially cause accidents. Clutter is particularly noticeable on roads where the street lights are badly designed, or where brightly lit advertisements surrounds the roadways. Depending on the motives of the person or organization that installed the lights, their placement and design can even be intended to distract drivers, and can contribute to accidents.

From satellites

Another source of light pollution are artificial satellites. With future increase in numbers of satellite constellations, like OneWeb and Starlink, it is feared especially by the astronomical community, such as the IAU that light pollution will increase significantly, beside other problems of satellite overcrowding. [26] [27]

Measurement and global effects

False colors show intensities of skyglow from artificial light sources Light pollution europe.jpg
False colors show intensities of skyglow from artificial light sources

Measuring the effect of sky glow on a global scale is a complex procedure. The natural atmosphere is not completely dark, even in the absence of terrestrial sources of light and illumination from the Moon. This is caused by two main sources: airglow and scattered light.

At high altitudes, primarily above the mesosphere, there is enough UV radiation from the sun of very short wavelength to cause ionization. When the ions collide with electrically neutral particles they recombine and emit photons in the process, causing airglow. The degree of ionization is sufficiently large to allow a constant emission of radiation even during the night when the upper atmosphere is in the Earth's shadow. Lower in the atmosphere all the solar photons with energies above the ionization potential of N2 and O2 have already been absorbed by the higher layers and thus no appreciable ionization occurs.

Apart from emitting light, the sky also scatters incoming light, primarily from distant stars and the Milky Way, but also the zodiacal light, sunlight that is reflected and backscattered from interplanetary dust particles.

The amount of airglow and zodiacal light is quite variable (depending, amongst other things on sunspot activity and the Solar cycle) but given optimal conditions the darkest possible sky has a brightness of about 22 magnitude/square arc second. If a full moon is present, the sky brightness increases to about 18 magnitude/sq. arc second depending on local atmospheric transparency, 40 times brighter than the darkest sky. In densely populated areas a sky brightness of 17 magnitude/sq. arc second is not uncommon, or as much as 100 times brighter than is natural.

To precisely measure how bright the sky gets, night time satellite imagery of the earth is used as raw input for the number and intensity of light sources. These are put into a physical model [28] of scattering due to air molecules and aerosoles to calculate cumulative sky brightness. Maps that show the enhanced sky brightness have been prepared for the entire world. [29]

Inspection of the area surrounding Madrid reveals that the effects of light pollution caused by a single large conglomeration can be felt up to 100 km (62 mi) away from the center. [30] Global effects of light pollution are also made obvious. The entire area consisting of southern England, Netherlands, Belgium, west Germany, and northern France have a sky brightness of at least two to four times normal (see above right). The only places in continental Europe where the sky can attain its natural darkness are in northern Scandinavia and in islands far from the continent.

In North America the situation is comparable. There is a significant problem with light pollution ranging from the Canadian Maritime Provinces to the American Southwest. [30] The International Dark-Sky Association works to designate areas that have high quality night skies. These areas are supported by communities and organizations that are dedicated to reducing light pollution (e.g. Dark-sky preserve). The National Park Service Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division has measured night sky quality in national park units across the U.S. Sky quality in the U.S. ranges from pristine (Capitol Reef National Park and Big Bend National Park) to severely degraded (Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and Biscayne National Park). [31] The National Park Service Night Sky Program monitoring database is available online (2015). [32]

The Bortle scale is a nine-level measuring system used to track how much light pollution there is in the sky. Five or less is the amount required to see the Milky Way whilst one is "pristine", the darkest possible. [33]

Light pollution in Hong Kong was declared the 'worst on the planet' in March 2013. [34]

In June 2016, it was estimated that one third of the world's population could no longer see the Milky Way, including 80% of Americans and 60% of Europeans. Singapore was found to be the most light-polluted country in the world. [35] [30]

A worldwide cloud-free mosaic from the Suomi NPP satellite, showing the extent of visible lights in 2016. The effects of light pollution--especially skyglow--spread far beyond the light sources visible here. BlackMarble20161km.jpg
A worldwide cloud-free mosaic from the Suomi NPP satellite, showing the extent of visible lights in 2016. The effects of light pollution—especially skyglow—spread far beyond the light sources visible here.


Effects on human health and psychology

Streetlights at the ski resort Kastelruth in South Tyrol, Italy Lichtverschmutzung in Kastelruth.JPG
Streetlights at the ski resort Kastelruth in South Tyrol, Italy

Medical research on the effects of excessive light on the human body suggests that a variety of adverse health effects may be caused by light pollution or excessive light exposure, and some lighting design textbooks [36] use human health as an explicit criterion for proper interior lighting. Health effects of over-illumination or improper spectral composition of light may include: increased headache incidence, worker fatigue, medically defined stress, decrease in sexual function and increase in anxiety. [37] [38] [39] [40] Likewise, animal models have been studied demonstrating unavoidable light to produce adverse effect on mood and anxiety. [41] For those who need to be awake at night, light at night also has an acute effect on alertness and mood. [42]

In 2007, "shift work that involves circadian disruption" was listed as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer. (IARC Press release No. 180). [43] [44] Multiple studies have documented a correlation between night shift work and the increased incidence of breast and prostate cancer. [45] [46] [47] [48] [49] [50] One study which examined the link between exposure to artificial light at night (ALAN) and levels of breast cancer in South Korea found that regions which had the highest levels of ALAN reported the highest number of cases of breast cancer. Seoul, which had the highest levels of light pollution, had 34.4% more cases of breast cancer than Ganwon-do, which had the lowest levels of light pollution. This suggested a high correlation between ALAN and the prevalence of breast cancer. It was also found that there was no correlation between other types of cancer such as cervical or lung cancer and ALAN levels. [51]

A more recent discussion (2009), written by Professor Steven Lockley, Harvard Medical School, can be found in the CfDS handbook "Blinded by the Light?". [52] Chapter 4, "Human health implications of light pollution" states that "... light intrusion, even if dim, is likely to have measurable effects on sleep disruption and melatonin suppression. Even if these effects are relatively small from night to night, continuous chronic circadian, sleep and hormonal disruption may have longer-term health risks". The New York Academy of Sciences hosted a meeting in 2009 on Circadian Disruption and Cancer. [53] Red light suppresses melatonin the least. [54]

In June 2009, the American Medical Association developed a policy in support of control of light pollution. News about the decision emphasized glare as a public health hazard leading to unsafe driving conditions. Especially in the elderly, glare produces loss of contrast, obscuring night vision. [25]

Disruption of ecosystems

When artificial light affects organisms and ecosystems it is called ecological light pollution. While light at night can be beneficial, neutral, or damaging for individual species, its presence invariably disturbs ecosystems. For example, some species of spiders avoid lit areas, while other species are happy to build their spider web directly on a lamp post. Since lamp posts attract many flying insects, the spiders that don't mind light gain an advantage over the spiders that avoid it. This is a simple example of the way in which species frequencies and food webs can be disturbed by the introduction of light at night.

Light pollution poses a serious threat in particular to nocturnal wildlife, having negative impacts on plant and animal physiology. It can confuse animal navigation, alter competitive interactions, change predator-prey relations, and cause physiological harm. [55] The rhythm of life is orchestrated by the natural diurnal patterns of light and dark, so disruption to these patterns impacts the ecological dynamics. [56]

Studies suggest that light pollution around lakes prevents zooplankton, such as Daphnia , from eating surface algae, causing algal blooms that can kill off the lakes' plants and lower water quality. [57] Light pollution may also affect ecosystems in other ways. For example, lepidopterists and entomologists have documented that nighttime light may interfere with the ability of moths and other nocturnal insects to navigate. [58] Night-blooming flowers that depend on moths for pollination may be affected by night lighting, as there is no replacement pollinator that would not be affected by the artificial light. This can lead to species decline of plants that are unable to reproduce, and change an area's longterm ecology. [59] Among nocturnal insects, fireflies (Coleoptera: Lampyridae, Phengodidae and Elateridae) are especially interesting study objects for light pollution, once they depend on their own light to reproduce and, consequently, are very sensitive to environmental levels of light. [60] [61] [62] Fireflies are well known and interesting to the general public (unlike many other insects) [63] and are easily spotted by non-experts, and, due to their sensibility and rapid response to environmental changes [64] , good bioindicators for artificial night lighting. [64] [65] Massive insect declines have been suggested as being at least partially mediated by artificial lights at night. [66]

A scorpion hides under rocks. Scorpion in arizona.jpg
A scorpion hides under rocks.

A 2009 study [67] also suggests deleterious impacts on animals and ecosystems because of perturbation of polarized light or artificial polarization of light (even during the day, because direction of natural polarization of sun light and its reflection is a source of information for a lot of animals). This form of pollution is named polarized light pollution (PLP). Unnatural polarized light sources can trigger maladaptive behaviors in polarization-sensitive taxa and alter ecological interactions. [67]

Lights on tall structures can disorient migrating birds. Estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the number of birds killed after being attracted to tall towers range from four to five million per year to an order of magnitude higher. [68] The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) works with building owners in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and other cities to reduce mortality of birds by turning out lights during migration periods.

Similar disorientation has also been noted for bird species migrating close to offshore production and drilling facilities. Studies carried out by Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij b.v. (NAM) and Shell have led to development and trial of new lighting technologies in the North Sea. In early 2007, the lights were installed on the Shell production platform L15. The experiment proved a great success since the number of birds circling the platform declined by 50 to 90%. [69]

Brazil star trails and birds in light pollution in Rio beach at night Brazil star trails and birds in light pollution photography in Rio beach at night.jpg
Brazil star trails and birds in light pollution in Rio beach at night
Birds flying trace and star trail near Rio de Janeiro beach at night time in light pollution Birds flying trace.jpg
Birds flying trace and star trail near Rio de Janeiro beach at night time in light pollution

Birds migrate at night for several reasons. Save water from dehydration in hot day flying and part of the bird’s navigation system works with stars in some way. With city light outshining the night sky, birds (and also about mammals) no longer navigate by stars. [70]

Sea turtle hatchlings emerging from nests on beaches are another casualty of light pollution. It is a common misconception that hatchling sea turtles are attracted to the moon. Rather, they find the ocean by moving away from the dark silhouette of dunes and their vegetation, a behavior with which artificial lights interfere. [71] The breeding activity and reproductive phenology of toads, however, are cued by moonlight. [72] Juvenile seabirds may also be disoriented by lights as they leave their nests and fly out to sea. [73] [74] [75] Amphibians and reptiles are also affected by light pollution. Introduced light sources during normally dark periods can disrupt levels of melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates photoperiodic physiology and behaviour. Some species of frogs and salamanders utilize a light-dependent "compass" to orient their migratory behaviour to breeding sites. Introduced light can also cause developmental irregularities, such as retinal damage, reduced juvenile growth, premature metamorphosis, [76] reduced sperm production, and genetic mutation. [55] [77] [78] [60] [79] [80]

In September 2009, the 9th European Dark-Sky Symposium in Armagh, Northern Ireland had a session on the environmental effects of light at night (LAN). It dealt with bats, turtles, the "hidden" harms of LAN, and many other topics. [81] The environmental effects of LAN were mentioned as early as 1897, in a Los Angeles Times article. The following is an excerpt from that article, called "Electricity and English songbirds":

An English journal has become alarmed at the relation of electricity to songbirds, which it maintains is closer than that of cats and fodder crops. How many of us, it asks, foresee that electricity may extirpate the songbird? ... With the exception of the finches, all the English songbirds may be said to be insectivorous, and their diet consists chiefly of vast numbers of very small insects which they collect from the grass and herbs before the dew is dry. As the electric light is finding its way for street illumination into the country parts of England, these poor winged atoms are slain by thousands at each light every warm summer evening. ... The fear is expressed, that when England is lighted from one end to the other with electricity the song birds will die out from the failure of their food supply. [82]

Effect on astronomy

The constellation Orion, imaged at left from dark skies, and at right from within the Provo/Orem, Utah metropolitan area Light pollution It's not pretty.jpg
The constellation Orion, imaged at left from dark skies, and at right from within the Provo/Orem, Utah metropolitan area

Astronomy is very sensitive to light pollution. The night sky viewed from a city bears no resemblance to what can be seen from dark skies. [83] Skyglow (the scattering of light in the atmosphere at night) reduces the contrast between stars and galaxies and the sky itself, making it much harder to see fainter objects. This is one factor that has caused newer telescopes to be built in increasingly remote areas.

Even at apparent clear night skies there can be a lot of stray light that becomes visible at longer exposure times in astrophotography. By means of software the stray light can be reduced, but at the same time object detail is getting lost in the images. The following picture of the area around the Pinwheel Galaxy (Messier 101) with the apparent magnitude of 7.5m with all stars down to an apparent magnitude of 10m was taken in Berlin in direction close to the zenith with a fast lens (f-number 1.2) and an exposure time of five seconds at an exposure index of ISO 12800:

Some astronomers use narrow-band "nebula filters", which allow only specific wavelengths of light commonly seen in nebulae, or broad-band "light pollution filters", which are designed to reduce (but not eliminate) the effects of light pollution by filtering out spectral lines commonly emitted by sodium- and mercury-vapor lamps, thus enhancing contrast and improving the view of dim objects such as galaxies and nebulae. [84] Unfortunately, these light pollution reduction (LPR) filters are not a cure for light pollution. LPR filters reduce the brightness of the object under study and this limits the use of higher magnifications. LPR filters work by blocking light of certain wavelengths, which alters the color of the object, often creating a pronounced green cast. Furthermore, LPR filters work only on certain object types (mainly emission nebulae) and are of little use on galaxies and stars. No filter can match the effectiveness of a dark sky for visual or photographic purposes.

Light pollution affects the visibility of diffuse sky objects like nebulae and galaxies more than stars, due to their low surface brightness. Most such objects are rendered invisible in heavily light-polluted skies above major cities. A simple method for estimating the darkness of a location is to look for the Milky Way, which from truly dark skies appears bright enough to cast a shadow. [85]

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is far from any cities, and the night sky there is pitch-black. Photo by Jose Francisco Salgado. Milky Way Shines over Snowy La Silla.jpg
The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is far from any cities, and the night sky there is pitch-black. Photo by José Francisco Salgado.

In addition to skyglow, light trespass can impact observations when artificial light directly enters the tube of the telescope and is reflected from non-optical surfaces until it eventually reaches the eyepiece. This direct form of light pollution causes a glow across the field of view, which reduces contrast. Light trespass also makes it hard for a visual observer to become sufficiently adapted to the dark. The usual measures to reduce this glare, if reducing the light directly is not an option, include flocking the telescope tube and accessories to reduce reflection, and putting a light shield (also usable as a dew shield) on the telescope to reduce light entering from angles other than those near the target. Under these conditions, some astronomers prefer to observe under a black cloth to ensure maximum adaptation to the dark.

Increase in atmospheric pollution

A study presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco found that light pollution destroys nitrate radicals thus preventing the normal night time reduction of atmospheric smog produced by fumes emitted from cars and factories. [87] [88] The study was presented by Harald Stark from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Reduction of natural sky polarization

Light pollution is mostly unpolarized, and its addition to moonlight results in a decreased polarization signal. Effect of light pollution on sky polarization.jpg
Light pollution is mostly unpolarized, and its addition to moonlight results in a decreased polarization signal.

In the night, the polarization of the moonlit sky is very strongly reduced in the presence of urban light pollution, because scattered urban light is not strongly polarized. [89] Polarized moonlight can't be seen by humans, but is believed to be used by many animals for navigation.


This kind of LED droplight could reduce unnecessary light pollution in building interiors. LED Droplight.JPG
This kind of LED droplight could reduce unnecessary light pollution in building interiors.

Reducing light pollution implies many things, such as reducing sky glow, reducing glare, reducing light trespass, and reducing clutter. The method for best reducing light pollution, therefore, depends on exactly what the problem is in any given instance. Possible solutions include:

Improving lighting fixtures

A flat-lens cobra luminaire, which is a full-cutoff fixture, is very effective in reducing light pollution. It ensures that light is directed only below the horizontal, which means less light is wasted through directing it outwards and upwards. Flat-lens cobra luminaire.jpg
A flat-lens cobra luminaire, which is a full-cutoff fixture, is very effective in reducing light pollution. It ensures that light is directed only below the horizontal, which means less light is wasted through directing it outwards and upwards.
This drop-lens cobra luminaire allows light to escape sideways and upwards, where it may cause problems. Drop-lens cobra luminaire.jpg
This drop-lens cobra luminaire allows light to escape sideways and upwards, where it may cause problems.

The use of full cutoff lighting fixtures, as much as possible, is advocated by most campaigners for the reduction of light pollution. It is also commonly recommended that lights be spaced appropriately for maximum efficiency, and that number of luminaires being used as well as the wattage of each luminaire match the needs of the particular application (based on local lighting design standards).

Full cutoff fixtures first became available in 1959 with the introduction of General Electric's M100 fixture. [90]

A full cutoff fixture, when correctly installed, reduces the chance for light to escape above the plane of the horizontal. Light released above the horizontal may sometimes be lighting an intended target, but often serves no purpose. When it enters into the atmosphere, light contributes to sky glow. Some governments and organizations are now considering, or have already implemented, full cutoff fixtures in street lamps and stadium lighting.

The use of full cutoff fixtures help to reduce sky glow by preventing light from escaping above the horizontal. Full cutoff typically reduces the visibility of the lamp and reflector within a luminaire, so the effects of glare are also reduced. Campaigners also commonly argue that full cutoff fixtures are more efficient than other fixtures, since light that would otherwise have escaped into the atmosphere may instead be directed towards the ground. However, full cutoff fixtures may also trap more light in the fixture than other types of luminaires, corresponding to lower luminaire efficiency, suggesting a re-design of some luminaires may be necessary.

The use of full cutoff fixtures can allow for lower wattage lamps to be used in the fixtures, producing the same or sometimes a better effect, due to being more carefully controlled. In every lighting system, some sky glow also results from light reflected from the ground. This reflection can be reduced, however, by being careful to use only the lowest wattage necessary for the lamp, and setting spacing between lights appropriately. [91] Assuring luminaire setback is greater than 90° from highly reflective surfaces also diminishes reflectance.

A common criticism of full cutoff lighting fixtures is that they are sometimes not as aesthetically pleasing to look at. This is most likely because historically there has not been a large market specifically for full cutoff fixtures, and because people typically like to see the source of illumination. Due to the specificity with their direction of light, full cutoff fixtures sometimes also require expertise to install for maximum effect.

The effectiveness of using full cutoff roadway lights to combat light pollution has also been called into question. According to design investigations, luminaires with full cutoff distributions (as opposed to cutoff or semi cutoff, compared here) [92] have to be closer together to meet the same light level, uniformity and glare requirements specified by the IESNA. These simulations optimized the height and spacing of the lights while constraining the overall design to meet the IESNA requirements, and then compared total uplight and energy consumption of different luminaire designs and powers. Cutoff designs performed better than full cutoff designs, and semi-cutoff performed better than either cutoff or full cutoff. This indicates that, in roadway installations, over-illumination or poor uniformity produced by full cutoff fixtures may be more detrimental than direct uplight created by fewer cutoff or semi-cutoff fixtures. Therefore, the overall performance of existing systems could be improved more by reducing the number of luminaires than by switching to full cutoff designs.

The majority of Italian regions require "zero upward light", which usually implies use of overall full cut-off lamps for new luminaires, but violations are common. 110101 LightPollution Italian Regional bills specs.jpg
The majority of Italian regions require "zero upward light", which usually implies use of overall full cut-off lamps for new luminaires, but violations are common.

However, using the definition of "light pollution" from some Italian regional bills (i.e., "every irradiance of artificial light outside competence areas and particularly upward the sky") only full cutoff design prevents light pollution. The Italian Lombardy region, where only full cutoff design is allowed (Lombardy act no. 17/2000, promoted by Cielobuio-coordination for the protection of the night sky), in 2007 had the lowest per capita energy consumption for public lighting in Italy. The same legislation also imposes a minimum distance between street lamps of about four times their height, so full cut off street lamps are the best solution to reduce both light pollution and electrical power usage.

Adjusting types of light sources

Several different types of light sources exist, each having a variety of properties that determine their appropriateness for different tasks. Particularly notable characteristics are efficiency, and spectral power distribution. It is often the case that inappropriate light sources have been selected for a task, either due to ignorance or because more appropriate lighting technology was unavailable at the time of installation. Therefore, poorly chosen light sources often contribute unnecessarily to light pollution and energy waste. By updating light sources appropriately, it is often possible to reduce energy use and pollutive effects while simultaneously improving efficiency and visibility.

Some types of light sources are listed in order of energy efficiency in the table below (figures are approximate maintained values), and include their visual skyglow impact, relative to LPS lighting. [93] [94]

Type of light sourceColorLuminous efficacy
(in lumens per watt)
Sky glow impact
(relative to LPS)
LED street light (white)warm-white to cool-white1204–8
Low Pressure Sodium (LPS/SOX)yellow/amber1101.0
High Pressure Sodium (HPS/SON)pink/amber-white902.4
Metal Halide warm-white to cool-white704–8
Incandescent yellow/white8–251.1
PCA-LED amber2.4

Many astronomers request that nearby communities use low pressure sodium lights or amber Aluminium gallium indium phosphide LED as much as possible, because the principal wavelength emitted is comparably easy to work around or in rare cases filter out. [95] The low cost of operating sodium lights is another feature. In 1980, for example, San Jose, California, replaced all street lamps with low pressure sodium lamps, whose light is easier for nearby Lick Observatory to filter out. Similar programs are now in place in Arizona and Hawaii. Such yellow light sources also have significantly less visual skyglow impact, [96] so reduce visual sky brightness and improve star visibility for everyone.

Disadvantages of low pressure sodium lighting are that fixtures must usually be larger than competing fixtures, and that color cannot be distinguished, due to its emitting principally a single wavelength of light (see security lighting). Due to the substantial size of the lamp, particularly in higher wattages such as 135 W and 180 W, control of light emissions from low pressure sodium luminaires is more difficult. For applications requiring more precise direction of light (such as narrow roadways) the native lamp efficacy advantage of this lamp type is decreased and may be entirely lost compared to high pressure sodium lamps. Allegations that this also leads to higher amounts of light pollution from luminaires running these lamps arise principally because of older luminaires with poor shielding, still widely in use in the UK and in some other locations. Modern low-pressure sodium fixtures with better optics and full shielding, and the decreased skyglow impacts of yellow light preserve the luminous efficacy advantage of low-pressure sodium and result in most cases is less energy consumption and less visible light pollution. Unfortunately, due to continued lack of accurate information, [97] many lighting professionals continue to disparage low-pressure sodium, contributing to its decreased acceptance and specification in lighting standards and therefore its use. Another disadvantage of low-pressure sodium lamps is that some people find the characteristic yellow light very displeasing aesthetically.[ citation needed ]

Because of the increased sensitivity of the human eye to blue and green wavelengths when viewing low-luminances (the Purkinje effect) in the night sky, different sources produce dramatically different amounts of visible skyglow from the same amount of light sent into the atmosphere.

Re-designing lighting plans

In some cases, evaluation of existing plans has determined that more efficient lighting plans are possible. For instance, light pollution can be reduced by turning off unneeded outdoor lights, and lighting stadiums only when there are people inside. Timers are especially valuable for this purpose. One of the world's first coordinated legislative efforts to reduce the adverse effect of this pollution on the environment began in Flagstaff, Arizona, in the U.S. There, more than three decades of ordinance development has taken place, with the full support of the population, [98] often with government support, [99] with community advocates, [100] and with the help of major local observatories, [101] including the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station. Each component helps to educate, protect and enforce the imperatives to intelligently reduce detrimental light pollution.

One example of a lighting plan assessment can be seen in a report originally commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the United Kingdom, and now available through the Department for Communities and Local Government. [102] The report details a plan to be implemented throughout the UK, for designing lighting schemes in the countryside, with a particular focus on preserving the environment.

In another example, the city of Calgary has recently replaced most residential street lights with models that are comparably energy efficient. [103] The motivation is primarily operation cost and environmental conservation. The costs of installation are expected to be regained through energy savings within six to seven years.

The Swiss Agency for Energy Efficiency (SAFE) uses a concept that promises to be of great use in the diagnosis and design of road lighting, "consommation électrique spécifique (CES)", which can be translated into English as "specific electric power consumption (SEC)". [104] Thus, based on observed lighting levels in a wide range of Swiss towns, SAFE has defined target values for electric power consumption per metre for roads of various categories. Thus, SAFE currently recommends an SEC of two to three watts per meter for roads less than ten metres wide (four to six for wider roads). Such a measure provides an easily applicable environmental protection constraint on conventional "norms", which usually are based on the recommendations of lighting manufacturing interests, who may not take into account environmental criteria. In view of ongoing progress in lighting technology, target SEC values will need to be periodically revised downwards.

Crossroad in Alessandria, Italy: luminaires with mercury lamps are in the background, LED street lights in the middle, luminaires with high pressure sodium lamps are in the foreground. 110213 LED vs Sodium vs Mercury.jpg
Crossroad in Alessandria, Italy: luminaires with mercury lamps are in the background, LED street lights in the middle, luminaires with high pressure sodium lamps are in the foreground.

A newer method for predicting and measuring various aspects of light pollution was described in the journal Lighting Research & Technology (September 2008). Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center have developed a comprehensive method called Outdoor Site-Lighting Performance (OSP), which allows users to quantify, and thus optimize, the performance of existing and planned lighting designs and applications to minimize excessive or obtrusive light leaving the boundaries of a property. OSP can be used by lighting engineers immediately, particularly for the investigation of glow and trespass (glare analyses are more complex to perform and current commercial software does not readily allow them), and can help users compare several lighting design alternatives for the same site. [105]

In the effort to reduce light pollution, researchers have developed a "Unified System of Photometry", which is a way to measure how much or what kind of street lighting is needed. The Unified System of Photometry allows light fixtures to be designed to reduce energy use while maintaining or improving perceptions of visibility, safety, and security. [106] There was a need to create a new system of light measurement at night because the biological way in which the eye's rods and cones process light is different in nighttime conditions versus daytime conditions. Using this new system of photometry, results from recent studies have indicated that replacing traditional, yellowish, high-pressure sodium (HPS) lights with "cool" white light sources, such as induction, fluorescent, ceramic metal halide, or LEDs can actually reduce the amount of electric power used for lighting while maintaining or improving visibility in nighttime conditions. [107]

The International Commission on Illumination, also known as the CIE from its French title, la Commission Internationale de l'Eclairage, will soon be releasing its own form of unified photometry for outdoor lighting.

See also

Related Research Articles

Electric light A device that produces light from electricity

An electric light is a device that produces visible light from electric current. It is the most common form of artificial lighting and is essential to modern society, providing interior lighting for buildings and exterior light for evening and nighttime activities. In technical usage, a replaceable component that produces light from electricity is called a lamp. Lamps are commonly called light bulbs; for example, the incandescent light bulb. Lamps usually have a base made of ceramic, metal, glass, or plastic, which secures the lamp in the socket of a light fixture. The electrical connection to the socket may be made with a screw-thread base, two metal pins, two metal caps or a bayonet cap.

Stage lighting

Stage lighting is the craft of lighting as it applies to the production of theater, dance, opera, and other performance arts. Several different types of stage lighting instruments are used in this discipline. In addition to basic lighting, modern stage lighting can also include special effects, such as lasers and fog machines. People who work on stage lighting are commonly referred to as lighting technicians or lighting designers.


Daylighting is the practice of placing windows, skylights, other openings, and reflective surfaces so that sunlight can provide effective internal lighting. Particular attention is given to daylighting while designing a building when the aim is to maximize visual comfort or to reduce energy use. Energy savings can be achieved from the reduced use of artificial (electric) lighting or from passive solar heating. Artificial lighting energy use can be reduced by simply installing fewer electric lights where daylight is present or by automatically dimming/switching off electric lights in response to the presence of daylight – a process known as daylight harvesting.


Lighting or illumination is the deliberate use of light to achieve practical or aesthetic effects. Lighting includes the use of both artificial light sources like lamps and light fixtures, as well as natural illumination by capturing daylight. Daylighting is sometimes used as the main source of light during daytime in buildings. This can save energy in place of using artificial lighting, which represents a major component of energy consumption in buildings. Proper lighting can enhance task performance, improve the appearance of an area, or have positive psychological effects on occupants.


Skyglow is the diffuse luminance of the night sky, apart from discrete light sources such as the Moon and visible individual stars. It is a commonly noticed aspect of light pollution. While usually referring to luminance arising from artificial lighting, skyglow may also involve any scattered light seen at night, including natural ones like starlight, zodiacal light, and airglow.

Sodium-vapor lamp

A sodium-vapor lamp is a gas-discharge lamp that uses sodium in an excited state to produce light at a characteristic wavelength near 589 nm.

Street light Raised source of light beside a road or path

A street light, light pole, lamppost, street lamp, light standard or lamp standard is a raised source of light on the edge of a road or path. Similar lights may be found on a railway platform. When urban electric power distribution became ubiquitous in developed countries in the 20th century, lights for urban streets followed, or sometimes led.

Street lighting in the United States was introduced to the US by inventor Benjamin Franklin, who was the postmaster of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For this reason, many regard Philadelphia as the birthplace of street lighting in the US.

The dark-sky movement is a campaign to reduce light pollution. The advantages of reducing light pollution include an increased number of stars visible at night, reducing the effects of electric lighting on the environment, improving the well-being, health and safety of both people and wildlife, and cutting down on energy usage. Earth Hour and National Dark-Sky Week are two examples of such efforts.

Architectural lighting design Field within architecture, interior design and electrical engineering

Architectural lighting design is a field within architecture, interior design and electrical engineering that is concerned with the design of lighting systems, including natural light, electric light, or both, to serve human needs.

In the field of physical security, security lighting is lighting that intended to deter or detect intrusions or other criminal activity on a piece of real property. It can also be used to increase a feeling of safety. Lighting is integral to crime prevention through environmental design.

National Dark-Sky Week

International Dark Sky Week, held during the week of the new moon in April, is a week during which people worldwide turn out their lights in order to observe the beauty of the night sky without light pollution. This event was founded in 2003 by high school student Jennifer Barlow of Midlothian, Virginia and its popularity and participation increases every year. It has been endorsed by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the Astronomical League, and Sky & Telescope (S&T).

Light fixture

A light fixture, light fitting, or luminaire is an electrical device that contains an electric lamp that provides illumination. All light fixtures have a fixture body and one or more lamps. The lamps may be in sockets for easy replacement—or, in the case of some LED fixtures, hard-wired in place.

Glare (vision)

Glare is difficulty of seeing in the presence of bright light such as direct or reflected sunlight or artificial light such as car headlamps at night. Because of this, some cars include mirrors with automatic anti-glare functions.

LED lamp light source

An LED lamp or LED light bulb is an electric light for use in light fixtures that produces light using one or more light-emitting diodes (LEDs). LED lamps have a lifespan many times longer than equivalent incandescent lamps, and are significantly more efficient than most fluorescent lamps, with some manufacturers claiming LED chips with a luminous efficacy of up to 303 lumens per watt. However, LED lamps require an electronic LED driver circuit when operated from mains power lines, and losses from this circuit means that the efficiency of the lamp is lower than the efficiency of the LED chips it uses. The most efficient commercially available LED lamps have efficiencies of 200 lumens per watt (Lm/W). The LED lamp market is projected to grow by more than twelve-fold over the next decade, from $2 billion in the beginning of 2014 to $25 billion in 2023, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25%. As of 2016, many LEDs use only about 10% of the energy an incandescent lamp requires.

Often task lighting refers to increasing illuminance to better accomplish a specific activity. However, the illuminance level is not the only factor governing visibility. Contrast is also important, and a poorly positioned light source may cause contrast reduction, resulting in loss of visibility. The most important purpose of task lighting in the office is not increasing illuminance, but improving contrast. General lighting can be reduced because task lighting provides focused light where needed.

LED street light

An LED street light or road light is an integrated light-emitting diode (LED) light fixture that is used for street lighting.

Ecological light pollution

Ecological light pollution is the effect of artificial light on individual organisms and on the structure of ecosystems as a whole.

Globe at Night citizen science project

Globe at Night is an international scientific research program that crowdsources measurements of light pollution in the night sky. At set time periods within each year, the project asks people to count the number of stars that they can see from their location and report it to the project's website. The coordinating researchers compile this information to produce a public, freely available map of global light pollution. By September 2011, almost 70,000 measurements had been made. The use of data collected by the public makes the program an example of citizen science. Globe at Night began as a NASA educational program in the US organized by the NOAO, and was expanded internationally during the 2009 International Year of Astronomy; it is an offshoot of the GLOBE Program, which focusses on school-based science education.

The spectral G-Index is a variable that was developed to quantify the amount of short wavelength light in a visible light source relative to its visible emission. The smaller the G-index, the more blue, violet, or ultraviolet light a lamp emits relative to its total output. It is used in order to select outdoor lamps that minimize skyglow and ecological light pollution. The G-index was originally proposed by David Galadí Enríquez, an astrophysicist at Calar Alto Observatory.


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