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Expert: Night is Becoming Less Dark, And That’s Not a Good Thing

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This image shows the amount of light produced in Hawai‘i, with the gray spots being the darkest and pristine night skies. The image was part of Michael Marlin’s presentation to the County Council Committee on Climate Resilience and Natural Resource Management on Tuesday, April 19. (Screenshot from video)

Members of the Hawai‘i County Council on Tuesday, April 19, heard about a valuable economic and cultural resource that is slowly disappearing on the Big Island — the darkness of night.

During a meeting of the council’s Committee on Climate Resilience and Natural Resource Management, Michael Marlin presented a presentation titled “Dark Skies in Hawai‘i: A Natural Resource Worth Protecting.” Marlin has been involved with dark sky advocacy since 1987, is a dark sky ambassador for the International Astronomical Union and delegate of the International Dark-Sky Association. He also created, produced and toured a theatrical production in 45 states and on five continents to raise awareness about the loss of night.

Council Chairwoman Maile David asked Marlin to present information to the council regarding “dark sky” initiatives and how they could reduce costs, energy consumption and greenhouse gases. His presentation also included information about how preserving dark skies over the Big Island could protect nocturnal wildlife, human health and cultural heritage and create economic stimulus through astrotourism.

While not intentional, the timing of Marlin’s presentation was apt. International Dark Sky Week will be observed April 22-30.

“It is happening,” Marlin said during his presentation. “We are losing the darkness of night over the Big Island of Hawai’i.”

Michael Marlin gives his presentation Tuesday to the council’s Committee on Climate Resilience and Natural Resource Management. (Screenshot from video)
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He believes people have a birthright to the night — the darkness and view of the stars — and preserving that natural resource is environmentally, ethically and culturally the right thing to do. But increasing light pollution, even on the Big Island, is an issue that impacts the health and wallets of residents and the county.

He said the sky glow from Pāhoa can now be seen in Kalapana and the glow from Hilo is lighting up the night as far as Kurtistown. On a clear, dark night, about 2,500 stars should be visible to the naked eye, but on the same night, in a moderately illuminated suburban area, only about 300 stars can be seen.

“Sky glow is the death of a dark sky,” Marlin said.

Other forms of light pollution include glare, clutter, over lighting, light trespass and blue wavelengths. He showed the committee examples of these types of light pollution, including images of O‘ahu and Lahaina, Maui, at night.

The image of O‘ahu was taken from space, and Marlin said if the light can be seen, that means it’s going up into the air and is wasted.

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“It’s wasted energy, it’s wasted light and it serves absolutely no purpose,” he said.

The image from Lahaina showed unshielded lighting, which is a big part of how light pollution happens. Marlin said shielded lighting is designed to hit a targeted area, but the photo showed the opposite, including light hitting the water, which he said there is now more evidence being released about how marine life is being impacted by over lighting.

Light pollution also is produced by greenhouse gases, with light being reflected from clouds. And when it comes to light trespass, which Marlin has dealt with at his own home, he said it is also light harassment.

“Everybody should be able to have a quiet night, a dark night, without light shining into their house,” Marlin said.

He pushed back against suggestions that having less light at night would result in more crime, saying there are no studies that show a link to increased crime with more darkness at night. However, he said there have been studies on how excess lighting can aid criminals because they are able to see and navigate more clearly.

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“If light prevented crime, you would have no crime during the day,” Marlin said.

Light pollution also affects health. He said the American Medical Association, in a study, has linked certain types of lighting to obesity, diabetes, depression, eye damage, some cancers and other conditions.

This image, part of Marlin’s presentation Tuesday, shows light intensities, including the best intensity for human eyes according to guidance from the American Medical Association. (Screenshot from video)

“Despite the energy efficiency benefits, some LED lights are harmful when used as street lighting,” says the AMA in a quote featured in Marlin’s presentation. “The new AMA guidance encourages proper attention to optimal design and engineering features when converting to LED lighting that minimize detrimental health and environmental effects.”

The association, according to Marlin’s presentation, says high-intensity LED lighting designs emit a large amount of blue light that appears white to the naked eye and create worse nighttime glare than conventional lighting. Marlin explained this kind of lighting includes new types of white headlights that make it almost impossible to see the road past them. Discomfort and disability from that type of lighting, according to the AMA, can decrease visual acuity and safety, causing concern and creating a road hazard.

Marlin showed that French authorities agreed in a 400-page report, warning that these intensely bright LED lights are “photo-toxic” and can irreversibly damage a person’s sight. Other studies have been done assessing how glare affects the human eye as it ages.

He gave examples of other countries and states that passed laws to combat the issue, including Mexico, which put a new law in place stating light pollution is an environmental pollutant. Other countries such as France and Croatia, states including Texas and Massachusetts and U.S. cities such as Pittsburgh have either passed measures or are considering moves to mitigate light pollution.

Marlin said the existing Hawai’i statute says a lighting fixture is considered to be fully shielded when it is shielded in a manner that the light it emits, either directly or indirectly, is projected below a horizontal plane through the lowest point of the fixture. Instead, he said the best lighting needs to be targeted, allowing the eye to adapt to the night.

It also encourages nocturnal animals to feel more comfortable. Further still, if the light is only illuminating a pathway, more nocturnal birds will feel comfortable and safe in the environment.

Marlin explained the Illuminating Engineering Society and International Dark-Sky Association have laid out five principles for lighting: every light should have a clear purpose, be targeted, use the lowest light level possible, controlled and be the warmest color possible.

Changing and having the best lighting not only would help save energy costs and consumption, it also would encourage astrotourism, boosting the island’s economy.

“As Earth grows ever more populous and cities expand, opportunities for humanity to look up at the rest of the universe decrease,” said one of the panels in Marlin’s PowerPoint presentation. “Across the planet, travelers are now seeking out the world’s last-remaining dark places where they can get a clear, unpolluted view of the stars.”

According to a study by Airbnb and the Starlight Foundation, astrotourism on Maunakea has grown 68%, but Marlin said the study showed that’s still behind the curve of other places, including New Zealand, South Africa and Chile, where astrotourism economies are being created and refined.

Missouri State University did an economic study based on input from visitors to national parks on the Colorado Plateau. According to one of Marlin’s panels, the study found that non-local tourists who value dark skies will spend $5.8 billion throughout the next 10 years in the plateau area, generating $2.4 billion in higher wages and creating more than 10,000 additional jobs each year for the region.

Marlin also said there are 195 certified dark sky places around the world as of January this year. That includes dark sky parks, reserves, sanctuaries and communities — but there are none in Hawai‘i.

Every culture in the world also has their own unique stories surrounding the stars, Marlin said. Hawaiians are no different, and part of preserving the heritage is preserving what those stories are attached to — “if we lose the stars, we lose the stories,” he said.

Council Chairwoman Maile David speaks following Marlin’s presentation Tuesday. (Screenshot from video)

Marlin showed that part of the county Research and Development Department’s destination management actions to protect and preserve culturally and historically significant places includes the development of multi-sector partnerships to protect areas necessary to preserving Hawaiian heritage.

“The sky, we all live under it, and that’s why it needs to be a multi-sector partnership,” Marlin said.

He said if Hawai‘i doesn’t take advantage of its dark skies, “the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

Marlin presented ways Hawai‘i could become certified by the International Dark-Sky Association:

  • Businesses complying with county and state ordinances for dark sky lighting.
  • A public relations campaign to preserve the night in Hawai‘i.
  • Considering the codification of all outdoor lighting to preserve dark skies.
  • Tax incentives put in place for people to retrofit their outdoor lighting.

Before ending his presentation, Marlin reiterated the dark sky principles he began with that make communities betters places to live, including saving on energy and costs, promoting safety, reducing greenhouse gases, protecting public health and all nocturnal wildlife, preserving culture, stimulating the economy and improving aesthetics.

“Mr. Marlin. I’m just blown away by your presentation and the information that you have provided,” said David after Marlin was finished. “Not knowing what we’ve always come to appreciate but seeing your presentation and the importance of it was very eye-opening for myself.”

Committee Chairwoman Rebecca Villegas said it sounds like the county has further to go when it comes to combatting light pollution and protecting a resource that the island will lose unless it gets more attention. She also agreed with Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy that some legislation, not only related to how public spaces are lit, but reducing the county’s footprint and energy consumption.

Committee Chairwoman Rebecca Villegas speaks after Marlin’s presentation Tuesday. (Screenshot from video)

“You’re obviously an expert in this field, and so (for) many of us, it’s still kind of a new topic,” Villegas told Marlin. “It’s counterintuitive to everything that, essentially, mainstream is teaching us — light it up, light it up, light it up. But as you pointed out so profoundly and really helped to clarify, is the value in a dark sky and what that means.”

She said laying under the stars, seeing that many sources of light, shooting stars, planets, twinkling, satellites and that amount of movement, just that experience of being able to be that small under a broad sky and see so much is really powerful.

“I think it’s a sacred experience,” Villegas said. “We know that culturally and historically, it has profoundly impacted the way that humans behave and interact with our world.”

She’s interested and excited to continue the conversation. She thinks taking on light pollution is another way to look at how the county can mitigate its carbon footprint when it comes to energy use and resources.

“And to protect what you have pointed out is a priceless resource that is disappearing,” Villegas said. “I really hope to continue conversations and bring this as a solution to the issues that we have.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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