Our Brightening Skies Spell A Gloomy Future

It is invisible to both our eyes and minds. Many are unaware of it and its implications. Yet, it continues to harm people and animals. The issue of light pollution is real.

But just how serious is the problem of light pollution in Singapore? And should we be worried?

An Eternal Twilight

Do you know more than 80% of the world’s population is subjected to concerning levels of light pollution? (Falchi et al.) Light pollution, or the excessive use of artificial lighting, can result in ‘skyglow’, where the night sky brightens up so much that it visually turns night into day (National Geographic Society).

View from author’s home

This underlines the severity of the issue, and nowhere else is better than Singapore to examine it. With a 100% light pollution rating, Singapore is the most light-polluted city in the world (Falchi et al.). Even here, the issue has been overlooked. Based on a survey we conducted, of the 22 respondents, 11 reflected that light pollution is the form of pollution that they are least familiar with.

Survey Responses

Keeping You Awake

Because Singapore is a tiny island nation, yet heavily urbanised with a densely-packed population and easy access to electricity, skyglow can be observed in most of the city-state. Unfortunately, this means that everyone is subjected to the consequences of light pollution.

The research is clear: light pollution devastates your body.

Our bodies operate on a circadian rhythm, known informally as a “biological clock”. When dusk and darkness arrive, melatonin — a hormone that helps us sleep — is released by our bodies, making us feel tired (Suni).

However, bright artificial light all around us, usually in the form of LED lights, streetlights and more, throws everything haywire, suppressing the release of melatonin. Our bodies are tricked into thinking that it is still daytime! Because of this, millions of people are at risk of developing long-term sleep disorders such as insomnia (National Geographic Society).

Health problems begin to snowball, creating stress and affecting our mood. One is more likely to develop diabetes (Mason et al.), heart disease (Münzel et al.), malignant cancers (Spivey) and all sorts of chronic health conditions.

Light pollution affects all of us, and that is why we should play an active part in reducing it.

Crushed and Crashed

Light pollution also hits animals hard, especially nocturnal ones. They depend on a dark environment to live comfortably, but their lifestyles are being ravaged by artificial light.

Turtle hatchlings, for example, rely on moonlight to guide them into the sea. However, streetlights around the beach will easily distract them. In December last year, a Changi hatching happened too close to a park connector. Mistaking the streetlights for moonlight, the hatchlings wandered inland onto the pathway.

Many of them were saved, but ten to twelve unfortunately died, either dehydrated or crushed by unaware cyclists (Tan). Globally, thousands die painfully this way.

Bikers save hatchings (Goh)

Another example is the migratory birds passing by Singapore seasonally along the East Asian-Australiasian Flyway. Some, such as the waterfowl and shorebirds, rely on starlight and moonlight to navigate (Ouyang et al.).

However, many crash into skyscrapers, sometimes fatally, disoriented by their lights. In Singapore between 1998 and 2016, 73% of the 237 birds reported to have crashed took place in either the Central Business District or areas with heavy industrial activities, which are heavily light-polluted (Tan). The skyline we have come to love is a death trap due to light pollution.

Moreover, animals’ circadian rhythms are also affected by light pollution, and they too suffer from sleep deprivation (Raap et al.).

The tragic effects of light pollution on wildlife are particularly concerning in countries like Singapore, where our flora and fauna are already limited in number and variety. Light pollution makes the alarming shrink in our biodiversity even worse, and could eventually even result in many species going locally extinct.

Glimmer of Hope?

However, the outlook is not all doom and gloom. There are many plausible solutions to reduce the severity of this problem.

Everyone can contribute by simply turning off the lights when not in use. The math adds up – it can have a great impact if practised by many.

On a wider scale, this could be done in the CBD. If we could adopt a lights-off approach similar to New York, where state-owned buildings switch off non-essential lights at night, we would minimise skyglow and the impact on migratory birds (Harkawik).

Our lights are blazing all night despite most people not using them. Installing motion detectors on streetlights in less frequented areas so that they only turn on when needed could help greatly as the area will remain dark most of the time.

Additionally, a large reason why light pollution gets so bad is that our lights are sometimes shining indiscriminately in varying directions. Simply installing shades on windows can direct the light downwards, instead of affecting the area around it where there may be wildlife.

Moreover, it has been shown that orange lights have almost no effect on the circadian rhythm. If our street lighting emitted orange instead of white light, it could greatly reduce its impact on humans. Interestingly, Singapore’s streetlights were retrofitted from orange lamps to white LEDs which are more power-efficient and environmentally-friendly (Abdullah). A compromise will have to be struck to minimise the impacts on humans, animals and the environment.

Conclusion

Light pollution is a sadly overlooked issue, but its effects are more serious than we think. It has tangible harm on all of us.

Ironically, if we want a brighter future, we need to start turning out the lights.

References

Abdullah, Zhaki. “Smarter, more energy-efficient street lights by 2022”. The Straits Times, SPH Media Limited Co., 3 January 2017, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/transport/smarter-more-energy-efficient-streetlights-by-2022.

Falchi, Fabio, et al. “The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness.” Science Advances, Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 10 June 2016, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.1600377.

Goh, Brendan. Bikers rescuing turtle hatchlings. Facebook, 17 December 2021, https://www.facebook.com/groups/naturesocietysingapore/posts/10159425741878213/?mibextid=6NoCDW. 23 November 2022.

Harkawik, Lauren. “Turn out the lights, New York. It’s for the birds”. The Times Union, The Times Union, 16 August 2022, https://www.timesunion.com/hudsonvalley/outdoors/article/lights-out-new-york-birds-17376676.php.

Mason, Ivy C., et al. “Light exposure during sleep impairs cardiometabolic function”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, volume 119 number 12, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 14 March 2022, https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2113290119.

Münzel, Thomas, et al. “The dark side of nocturnal light pollution. Outdoor light at night increases risk of coronary heart disease”. European Heart Journal, European Society of Cardiology, volume 42 issue 8, Oxford Academic, 21 November 2020, https://academic.oup.com/eurheartj/article/42/8/831/5998262.

National Geographic Society. “Light Pollution.” National Geographic Society, National Geographic, 16 July 2022, https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/light-pollution/.

Ouyang, Jenny Q., et al. “Restless roosts: Light pollution affects behavior, sleep, and physiology in a free-living songbird”. Wiley Online Library, Global Change Biology, 9 June 2017, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13756.

Raap, Thomas, et. al. “Light pollution disrupts sleep in free-living animals”. Scientific Reports, Nature, Nature Portfolio, 4 September 2015, https://www.nature.com/articles/srep13557.

Spivey, Angela. “LIGHT POLLUTION: Light at Night and Breast Cancer Risk Worldwide”. PubMed Central, National Library of Medicine, volume 118, Environmental Health Perspectives, December 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3002207/.

Suni, Eric. “Sleep Drive and Your Body Clock”, Sleep Foundation, OneCare Media, medically reviewed by Dr. Anis Rehman, Sleep Foundation, 4 November 2022, https://www.sleepfoundation.org/circadian-rhythm/sleep-drive-and-your-body-clock.

Tan, Audrey. “Skyscrapers pose fatal risk to migratory birds: Study”. The Straits Times, SPH Media Limited, Co., 13 August 2017, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/skyscrapers-pose-fatal-risk-to-migratory-birds-study.

Tan, Fiona. “Turtle hatchlings at Changi confuse street light with moonlight, crawl towards park connector instead of the sea”. mothership, Mothership, 18 December 2021, https://mothership.sg/2021/12/turtle-hatchlings-confuse-light-changi/?fbclid=IwAR2I85na_VnrvId2bHMokvckUmIamn2M7ig-dF_Xblb8gN5kINYbJkQ5CuM.

“The Color of the Light Affects the Circadian Rhythms”. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 April 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/emres/longhourstraining/color.html#:~:text=Exposure%20to%20white%20light%20during,or%20orange%20light%20at%20night.

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