By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: Shedding light on a modern problem

Humans are not kind to our Earth. We subject it to plastics, litter, air and noise pollution, and now another enemy: light pollution.

This human-produced illumination comes from street lights, commercial signs, automobiles. The brightest place on Earth is said to be the Las Vegas Strip, and the claim is that it has been seen from space.

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It is reassuring the light pollution problem now is being recognized and that something is being done to protect our disappearing night skies.

In 2001, the International Dark Sky Places program was founded to recognize and promote stewardship of night skies. This award-winning program encourages communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve endangered sites and provide related education.

It consists of five designations: International Dark Sky Communities, International Dark Sky Parks, International Dark Sky Preserves, International Dark Sky Sanctuaries and Urban Night Skies.

You’ve probably been aware of our disappearing night sky in McMinnville. When we are alerted to an upcoming impressive display in the heavens, we are advised that in order to see it we should drive into a secluded spot in the country away from city lights.

These protective night sky places are not just in the U.S. but all over the world, as in New Zealand and Chile. Mankind, fortunately, is beginning to realize how awesome our night skies are and that we should work to preserve them.

Oregon has its own Dark Sky Place. In August of this year, Sunriver was internationally recognized as the first in the state and one of 142 recognized worldwide.

One benefit of the Dark Sky program is as a tourist attraction. I have not visited Oregon’s Dark Sky Place, but on a bus tour in Idaho, one was on our itinerary. That evening, we waited for full darkness, then drove down a winding road to the highest nearby peak and parked at the site. We were asked not to talk in order to fully appreciate the silence and grandeur of that night sky panorama. It was awesome.

Similarly when we went on camping trips to the Eastern Oregon ranch, we noticed how many more stars there were than in McMinnville.

We humans seem to have a love affair with light and a war against darkness. When I push on the stem of my watch, it lights up to show the time. We have flashlights to brighten all dark corners. This year, a toy doll is being sold that has a lighted stomach.

Such was not the case in Monument when I was growing up and Rural Electrification had not yet found our area. For lights, we had coal oil lamps, lit with a wooden match, and we kids were taught the safe way to extinguish them.

When we went to the outhouse, we lighted a coal oil lantern or found our way in the dark. We knew the way well. Coal oil lanterns also provided light for chores after dark.

The darkest place on Earth is said to be the Sahara Desert, but there are still other places free from light. The International Dark Sky program encourages the addition of new sites and is said to provide assistance to those hoping for recognition.

If you know of a site you think might be a good night sky preserve, you could contact them. One spot that comes to mind is Bald Peak (1,663 feet). It’s the highest peak in the Chehalem Mountains, which is the highest range in the Willamette Valley.

The diverse effects of light pollution include some surprising things. It affects the growth of coral reefs. It’s a hindrance to astronomy. It can alter the behavior of animals, changing the interaction between prey and predator and confusion in migratory patterns.

It also can affect human health. Like many other species, we depend on circadian rhythms, or natural body cycles regulated by dark and light, night and day. If humans are exposed to light at night, melatonin production may be reduced. The results could be fatigue, stress, headaches, sleep disorders, increased anxiety and other problems.

Glare has been found to affect aging eyes. Damage can result from “over illumination,” or excessive exposure to light, as well as to “improper spectral composition of light.”

Light pollution is a waste of energy and an obstacle to our view of wondrous dark skies. It washes out starlight. Today, three of every four people in cities have never experienced a dark sky. Light pollution’s effects have been compared to the widespread long-term damage a toxic chemical spill can create across the land.

Light is responsible for so many necessary things and indeed we could not exist without it. How could we do without night stars to which we convey our wishes and dreams?

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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