Bring back the dark 

From LED signs to street lights, night is disappearing, taking energy dollars and the stars with it.

click to enlarge BLINDED BY THE LIGHT: Wade Aday and other Walton Heights residents are complaining about an intensely bright LED sign. "It's just phenomenal," Aday says.
  • BLINDED BY THE LIGHT: Wade Aday and other Walton Heights residents are complaining about an intensely bright LED sign. "It's just phenomenal," Aday says.

Wade Aday is having trouble getting sleep, and it's his view of the Arkansas River from his Walton Heights home that's the problem. 

A new, big-screen LED (light emitting diode) sign that welcomes visitors to the River Pointe Plaza Shopping Center on Maumelle Boulevard, across the river and west of North Little Rock, burns so brightly the Adays say it lights up their bedroom. 

The sign is two and a half miles from the Adays' home. “It's just phenomenal,” Aday said.

Aday and his wife are not the only ones complaining. Last month, the Walton Heights-Candlewood Homeowners Association quarterly newsletter featured an article headlined, “What is that strange light across the river?” The authors noted that “not only is the light an eyesore, it actually impedes a person's ability to get to sleep.”

Aday turned to the North Little Rock Planning Department for help. But the sign is in an unincorporated area of the county. Even if it were in North Little Rock, however, Aday would not be able to get relief: The sign is not illegal under North Little Rock code.

 

The sign on Maumelle Boulevard is but one of many sending bright groups of photons outward and upward into the night sky, polluting the dark. Street lights, road signs, marquees, and billboards that project light up and out (where it's not needed) instead of down (where it is) have transformed our starry night skies from inky black to a soupy, pale orange.

Jim Fisher and Wade Van Arsdale are local astronomers, and both are members of the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society, or CAAS. CAAS has an observatory located between Conway and Little Rock to take advantage of the dark rural night, but the sky glow of the two cities is encroaching.

“I'd say the glow around Conway and Little Rock has doubled since I started going out there in 1990,” Van Arsdale said. Standing atop the observatory, “It can reach upwards of 20 degrees over the horizon now.”

The glow inhibits astronomers' ability to conduct research and enjoy their hobby, but they're not the only ones to suffer. “My interest in protecting the night sky is not just for us nerdy astronomers going out with our telescopes, but for families, so they can go outside at night and see the stars and the Milky Way,” Fisher said. “Right now, West Little Rock is so lit up at night that you're lucky if you can see the major stars and constellations.”

The problem with light pollution is more than aesthetic, scientific studies show. It's bad for humans and wildlife. Exposure to night-time light can cause hormonal disturbances that affect the body's natural rhythms and even fuel the growth of tumors and cancer. A 2005 study published in the scientific journal Cancer Research reported that women who work the night shift are much more likely to develop breast cancer.

Wildlife will go hungry rather than venture out under heavy moonlight, where they're vulnerable to predators. That means less food for predators as well. Light pollution also affects the migratory habits of sea turtles, bats, birds and other species.

There are economic benefits, as well as health benefits, to reducing light pollution. Using less light means using less energy.

“A lot of our light is just lost energy because it's not focused where we want it,” Fisher said. “A lot of outdoor lights are aimed over the roofs and straight up in the air.” The use of shielded fixtures that focus light downward, where it's needed, reduces the amount of light needed, “and it would save whoever's paying the bills money in the long run,” he said.

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