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24 September 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Inside Out - North East: Monday January 24, 2005


Orange sky
Dark skies - is the sky at night getting brighter?

Light pollution is getting worse with Teesside and Tyneside the worst affected areas outside London. They are also the fastest growing black spots in the country.

The government promises action but environmental campaigners say it's too little. Inside Out takes a closer look at the North's skies at night.

"There has been an increase in light pollution: there is no question about that. The issue is what we do about it."
Lord Rooker, Minister of State for Regeneration, 2003

Pitch black

The night sky should look pitch black, but as we’ve developed a 24 hour society, we’ve been destroying the natural order of things.

We’re polluting the night sky, and it's affecting our ability to see even the brightest stars in the universe.

If the street lights were doing their job efficiently, they’d only shine down on the roads. The fact that you can see them directly from the air means that light is escaping in all directions.

At best it’s a waste of energy, at worst it’s ruining people’s lives. In the longer term light pollution is killing our environment, and the north's cities are some of the worst affected.

In the spotlight

A quick tour of the region illustrates the extent of the problem from cities and towns to small villages.

The County Durham village of Esh Winning looks bright even from a distance, a clue that light pollution may be a problem.

For some of the residents in one block of terraced houses the nightly intrusion of shining lights into their lives is a depressing reality.

Marney Harris
The shining - how bright can it glow?

The residents live opposite a brightly lit industrial estate - it's a bit like having a football stadium’s floodlights on all night.

They say the estate's security lights shine directly into their upstairs windows all night.

Some of the residents have moved bedrooms to avoid the glare, other have invested in black-out curtains.

Only a power cut gives resident Marney Harris a view of the landscape without the blinding lights.

“I had forgotten what it was like – you get accustomed to it, but you hate it at the same time... it’s getting worse”, says Marney.

Her young son has trouble sleeping. The security lights throw large shadows onto his bedroom wall at night.

Light show

Inside Out invited lighting expert Michael Phillips to test the level of light pollution in Esh Winning.

"You certainly have a problem," he tells concerned residents.

Secirity light
Time to tackle light pollution in your own backyard?

"You have a brightness which is four or five times brighter than that recommended by the Institute of Lighting Engineers."

He suggests that the residents approach the company direct and explain the problem which the light is causing them.

Phillips suggests that they ask them to re-angle their lights downwards. This would increase their efficiency as well as improving the residents' quality of life.

However, there's good news on the horizon - Hargreaves, the haulage company opposite the terrace, say they were unaware of the problem and are happy to talk with residents.

But it's not just businesses that contribute to light pollution - homeowners are every bit as responsible.

Modern security lights can beam out half the light of the average lighthouse. Perhaps light pollution reduction really starts at home after all?

The sky at night

Inside Out decided to investigate how clear our night skies really are with trips to two very different areas.

We asked Dr Pete Edwards, an astronomer based at Durham University, to point out the stars to a group of boy scouts.

They measured the number of stars they could see at Heaton in Newcastle using a very simple home made device - a toilet roll which they used to peer through.

Scouts doing sky test
How dark is your sky? Kielder scores better than Newcastle

Staring through the hole in the roll they could see a paltry 25-30 stars.

That’s pretty poor considering there are 100,000 million stars in the universe.

Next stop was fifty miles away. Kielder Forest is one of the darkest places in the country.

Predictably the star show was much better with dozens and dozens of stars to be seen.

The scouts were impressed with the brightness of the sky, and the reaction was one of amazement. The stars were "too many to count”.

However despite their successful stargazing, there’s also evidence that even in Kielder, the light pollution problem is escalating.

Countryside clarity?

There’s clear evidence that we’re destroying our night time sky, and countryside areas are also seeing a reduction in dark skies.

Map of light pollution
Bright spots? The North East scores poorly
In the last seven years the average night time brightness in Northumberland has gone up ten fold, and in Cumbria an amazing 40 fold.

That’s an increase of 1,000 per cent and 4,000 per cent respectively.

The North East and Cumbria is unique in having some of the darkest and brightest places in the country.

But look closely and you’ll see that since 1993 light pollution has been creeping into the countryside.

Light pollution in the North East increased by 42% between 1993-2000, the greatest increase of any region.

The percentage of areas with truly dark skies in Northumberland decreased by 28% in the same period, and Durham's light-saturated area quadrupled.

Light fantastic?

So why should we so concerned about light pollution?

Fact file

Let there be light? Here's the latest facts:

  1. There are three main types of light pollution: sky glow, glare and light trespass.
  2. The brightest stars have a magnitude of -1. A star of +6 magnitude is 100 times fainter than a star of +1 magnitude.
  3. Only stars of the fourth magnitude are now visible in Darlington.
  4. Due to urban skyglow only stars brighter than +1 magnitude are visible in urban areas.
  5. A survey by the Society for Popular Astronomy found that nearly 80% of its members could not see the Milky Way, or could only see it on good nights.

Common problems caused by light pollution include:

* disappearing stars - light pollution is destroying our view of the night sky;

* a threat to wildlife - many animals and birds are confused by the intrusion of stray light into their habitats at night. This can affect their feeding and breeding patterns;

* health problems - excessive light pollution can lead to sleep deprivation;

* accidents - security flashlights and high level lighting can blind drivers and obscure vision;

* the greenhouse effect - light pollution is contributing to an increase in greenhouse gases;

* energy inefficiency - light is often used inefficiently resulting in thousands of pounds worth of electricity being wasted.

Some of the solutions include:

  • reduce home security lighting levels and glare - ensure lights don't cast beams upwards;
  • take a more intelligent look at industrial lighting;
  • local authority fines for light polluters;
  • re-examine levels of street lighting.

Night blight?

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) have been campaigning for intrusive lighting to be made a statutory nuisance.

In December 2004 they secured a significant victory with the announcement that the government would take action.

Dark sky and moon
The sky at night - but for how much longer?

The Clean Neighbourhood Act will make light pollution a statutory nuisance, in the same way as noise pollution is at present.

At present there is little that a local council can do to tackle light polluters in their area.

The new legislation will impose fines on those who pollute neighbourhoods and dark skies.

As Tom Oliver from CPRE says, "At last people up and down the country will be able to fight back against blinding or distracting lighting which has for too long blighted their lives and forced then to endure the thoughtless decisions of others."

But will it be a sufficient deterrent to those responsible for the problem? The acid test will be in the application of the new measures.

How dark is your sky?

Inside Out wants to find out the best and worst places for star gazing in the region. We also want to hear your stories about light pollution.

Do the light test for yourself. All you need is a toilet roll and a clear night.

Night sky over Newcastle Civic Centre
The bright lights of Newcastle city centre seen from the air

Stand outside and count how many stars you can see in the night sky.

How does your street or town fare using the toilet roll telescope test?

Can you see only the brightest stars in the sky, or can you see constellations of stars?

Send in your comments using the form below.

See also ...

Inside Out: North East
Smoking ban

On the rest of Inside Out

On - Light pollution Rough guide to Night Sky - Space

On the rest of the web
Campaign to Protect Rural England
Dark Skies
British Astronomical Association
American Astronomical Society
International Dark Sky Association
Environment Agency
Earth Observatory
House of Commons
Institute of Lighting Engineers

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Brian Molloy
An easier way to test for light polution is to look over a lit area at the sky, and then just raise your arm to cover the area. You can see straight away the difference- stars suddenly appear that were not there before! To my mind, the biggest poluter is street lights. Why they are not fitted with covers to direct the light downwards, I do not know. Maybe they should all be retro fitted with some sort of device to cut out the wasted light.

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