People in the Shenandoah Valley are fighting for their right to see the night sky.

Story by Molly Jacob

Photos by Nick Fanelli

When’s the last time you got a glimpse of the Milky Way? Light pollution, the overuse and misuse of artificial light at night, is changing the way we experience nighttime. “The dark is half of our lives and we have lost it,” says John Goss, president of the Astronomical League and a Shenandoah Valley resident.

But the issue goes beyond just “losing the stars,” says Paul Bogard, a James Madison University English professor who wrote the book, “The End of Night: Searching For Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.” According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), artificial light disrupts our circadian rhythm, which is the body’s natural clock. Too much exposure to unnatural light at night interferes with melatonin production, eventually leading to increased risks of depression, sleep disorders, breast cancer, obesity, diabetes and more. Goss says the impacts of light pollution “happen so slowly that we don’t feel or see negative effects.” While people may be on board with the idea of reducing an issue that affects human health, many are still concerned that reducing light may reduce safety and allow crime to thrive. “It’s the most common counterargument,” says Shanil Virani, the director of the James Madison University John C. Wells Planetarium.

He argues that traditional lights actually create a glare that makes it hard to see beyond the light and creates shadows in which perpetrators could hide. “We have this illusion that more lighting equals more safety,” Virani says. Laura Greenleaf, the IDA Virginia chapter president, agrees, saying that people believe that “brighter is better” when it comes to lighting homes, roads, alleys and more. “There is ample evidence that lighting is not a crime deterrent,” Greenleaf says. “Feeling safe and being safe are two different things.” Studies have shown that more light does not necessarily prevent crime. For example, the Chicago Alley Lighting Project set out in the late ‘90s to increase lighting to decrease crime in the city, but found at the end of the project that the number of crimes in the well-lit areas had actually increased by about 20 percent. “We’re not anti-lighting,” Greenleaf says.

Most light pollution activists echo this same sentiment: They’re not advocating a banishment of all artificial light. “People may think, ‘Oh, now they want us to turn off our lights,’ but that’s not right,” Goss says. “We want the right amount of light, directed at the light place, at the right time.” But what does this mean? The Gaines Group, an architecture firm based in Harrisonburg and Charlottesville, was recently awarded the title “The Best Small Architecture Firm” by the U.S. Green Building Council. Charles Hendricks, the firm’s sustainability director and marketing director, is an advocate for environmentally friendly lighting practices. His firm uses fixtures called “full cutoff fixtures” that direct light downward where it is needed, instead of up at the sky, where it would create unnecessary light pollution.

“If we go to dark-sky compliant lights, the fixtures don’t cost more and it gets the light where it needs to be,” he says. “It’s more economical.” The city of Harrisonburg already has minimal lighting ordinances, and Hendricks says that the new City Hall, which opened in winter of 2015, is also not dark sky friendly. He says City Hall has “uplighting” because the building is surrounded by spotlights that shine up into the sky, creating a night glow. Mayor Chris Jones said by email that because the council has not taken a vote on the issue of light pollution, he cannot comment. There are other places in the Shenandoah Valley that have taken action to reduce light pollution.

Goss says that in Botetourt County he and his wife, Genevieve, advocated for the creation of the county’s lighting ordinance. This ordinance dictates the construction of new lights, which must now use the similar full cutoff lighting techniques mentioned above. Greenleaf has hope for the future of this issue, saying that light pollution, compared to issues such as climate change, is the “the most easily altered environmental problem.” “A really long-range shift has to take place,” Greenleaf says. There has to be “a fundamental change in how knee-jerk and haphazardly we use lighting.” Virani believes that now is the time to making decisions about how we move forward in lighting our world; many light fixtures are now antiquated, meaning that they could be replaced with more environmentally friendly options.

“The cost of the purchase to buy new lamps would pay for itself in less than a decade,” Virani says. “Ninety percent of an energy budget could be reduced.” In efforts to preserve natural darkness and reduce the harmful effects of artificial light, the IDA encourages communities to create dark-sky parks. These lands, with high-quality starry nights and protected nocturnal environments, must follow IDA guidelines to be designated as such. Right now, there are 31 dark-sky parks in the world; one of them is the Staunton River State Park. Lora Callahan, a 15-year-old high school freshman living in Lynchburg, is working on transforming James River State Park into a certified IDA dark-sky park for her Girl Scouts project. She creates light shields using wood and nails for the lights on the cabins, and is working on putting these lights on timers and motion sensors.

“I can’t imagine living in a world where you can’t see the stars at night,” she says. “Future generations are going to be able to see less and less; so much happened because people were inspired by the night sky.” Bogard agrees, saying that the night sky is fundamental for the human experience. “For most of human history, walking out of your door and coming face to face with the universe inspired science, religion, philosophy, arts,” Bogard says. “It’s not really inspiring anymore.”