Jim Richardson: Trying to keep the Stars in the Sky

A night sky filled with whirling clouds, a bright crescent moon and exploding stars that illuminate the entire landscape. This is the scene depicted in Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night.” Van Gogh painted “Starry Night” in 1889 while locked in an asylum. Many historians and art aficionados’ regard the picture as one of most iconic impressionists paintings. Everyday thousands of people fill the New York Museum of Modern Art to catch a glimpse of this landscape, but the night sky van Gogh vividly painted over a century ago is under attack (Trachtman, 2009, para 1-3).

The night sky is becoming washed out by light pollution. Light pollution’s effect on the night sky was the main focus of Jim Richardson’s lecture on Tuesday night. The National Geographic photographer spoke for over an hour to a crowd of an estimated 75 people at Syracuse University’s Hedrick’s Chapel (Richardson, 2009).

Richardson’s lecture titled, “Light Pollution: Our Vanishing Night” examined how light pollution affects the night sky and the overall environment. He discussed the causes of light pollution and what people can do to help. Richardson defined light pollution a

artificial light that intrudes into the night sky. This pollution is caused by poor lighting design that emits excessive light into the atmosphere.

He became interested in the topic after shooting photographs for the National Geographic feature “Our Vanishing Night.” Richardson and National Geographic writer Verlyn Klinkenborg traveled the world for over six months examining the impact of light pollution on the natural environment (Klinkenborg, 2008, p. 1).

Richardson began the lecture showing photographs of the Milky Way at night. The immense photo captured millions of bright stars, all tightly arranged in a single constellation. He then showed the same constellation washed out by light pollution. The second photograph appeared as if the constellation had aged or begun to die out. The surrounding sky was so bright many of the stars disappeared.

Richardson said that stars are more than just something to look at during the night. “The stars you see out there are not just beautiful objects; they are our home. Every atom in our bodies was forged in those stars. We are not just metaphorically children; we are actual children of those stars” (Richardson, 2009).

He then showed photos of skylines from Arizona to Sweden and explained how modern lighting is “obliterating the night sky.” Richardson then examined the specific light sources that cause the majority of light pollution. He said one of the main causes of light pollutions is non-cut off streetlights. Non cut-off streetlights emit light not only down, but also in horizontal directions. This light creates a glow that escapes into the atmosphere. Richardson said that in the United States there are over 26 million streetlights. These streetlights do not only create light pollution, but they also use as much energy as 1.9 million homes and produce as much greenhouse gas as 2.6 million cars (Richardson, 2009).

Richardson said one of the best ways to reduce light pollution and overall energy consumption was to start using more efficient street lighting systems. He suggested that using full cut-off lights, LED lights, motion activated lights or dimmer lights would all help reduce light pollution and save local governments hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy costs each year.

One of the more interesting policies Richardson discussed was the Italian government’s solution to light pollution. The Italian national government banned lighting fixtures that emit light into the sky in non-densely populated areas. Richardson showed a map of Italy and non-cut off lights are banned in over three quarters of the country. The only spots on the map that allowed non-cut off lights were near Venice, Florence and Rome.

He then transitioned to a humorous discussion about the pros and cons of well-lit city streets. Richardson described how people believe that criminals stay away from well-lit areas, but criminals are attracted to people and people are attracted to well lit areas. So logically criminals are in fact also attracted to well lit areas. He also told a funny anecdote about a police officer in St. Louis. The officer arrested a man caught breaking into a construction site. The officer asked if it would have helped if the site were better lit. The man replied, “Yeah, I would have been able to see what I was doing and get away faster.”

Richardson wrapped up the lecture with a section that discussed light pollution’s effects on humans and animals. He talked about how light pollution can suppress melatonin in humans and disrupt circadian rhythms. Richardson also said light pollution disturbs animals’ migratory and feeding patterns. While taking photographs for the “Vanishing Sky” article Richardson spent time in Florida covering the effects of light pollution on Leatherback Sea Turtles (Richardson, 2009).

Richardson said Leatherback Turtles and their ancestors have come to beaches in Florida to lay their eggs for over 1000 years. Over the past 100 years hotels were built on the beaches. These hotels use bright lights and cause many sea turtles to become disoriented. Many baby turtles have trouble finding their way back to the sea and mothers have difficulty finding where they laid their eggs. Leatherback turtles are now endangered, but to help preserve the species many hotels in Florida have began to use dim lighting during the time turtles lay their eggs. Thousands of people now stay in these hotels just to watch the baby turtles hatch from their shells (Richardson, 2009).

Throughout the lecture Richardson promoted the message that “there is no one to blame or no one person to point the finger at” because of light pollution. He said that light pollution is something humans can fix in the near future and there is hope. Richardson said that we do not have to go back to the dark ages to prevent light pollution, but we need to “start taking care of the world we were given.”

One of the most breathtaking photographs Richardson showed was a photograph he took during a helicopter ride over the city of Chicago. The city was covered with clouds, but underneath the grey covering emerged thousands of orange streetlights all placed in perfectly straight lines throughout the city. From the helicopter Chicago appeared to be a small microchip illuminating the night sky. The photograph illustrated through both imagery and metaphor the impact technology and humans have on the environment.

Jim Richardson’s lecture on light pollution was extremely interesting. Every photo he displayed showed a different way light pollution affects the environment. Throughout the lecture he told numerous jokes and stories to lighten the mood. One of the more humorous stories was when he talked about his wife’s reaction after he named a Leatherback Sea Turtle after her. Richardson was very articulate in his discussion.

Unlike many speakers who talk about environmental issues he covered every area of the problem. He talked about the causes, possible solutions, how the problem affects the environment and even offered resources where individuals could seek more information.