Natural Resources: Our Dark Night Skies and Quiet Places

Dark Skies: a Natural Resource at Risk

Printed in the Road Less Traveled / Floyd Press / June 3, 2010 ~ by Fred First

Several weeks ago about bedtime, I stood out by the garden fence long enough that a dozen familiar constellations and host of lesser points of light appeared overhead on a night so clear for this time of year it seemed we would surely have frost by morning (and we did!)

Other than the barred owls’ monkey calls down the valley south and the soft percussion of Goose Creek along the riffles, the world was at the still-point. I might have been the Only Man in that dark quiet, in that sweet peace possible by the lack of light-and-sound of civilization.

The absence of man’s light and noise are great gifts, it occurred to me, so I’d hope to explore them as “goods” of country living, to contemplate the aesthetic and health benefits of dark night skies and freedom from too much or unwanted noise, and to wonder aloud how we (as individuals, community and nation) might protect these natural resources of eye and ear.

So let’s look today at the role of light, and next time, at the impact of sound on our behaviors, our hormones and mental states.


A favorite phrase reminds me that “in wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” And in the darkness of the night sky, for so many of us–I would suggest–has come the beginning of wonder.

And yet, over a large portion of the developed world, less than 100 stars are visible in the night sky–often, fewer than 10. During the occasional grid-failure black-outs in large American cities, urban populations have been “star struck” to see the Milky Way for the first time, between skyscrapers and from their own back yards.

Here in northeastern Floyd County, we see the edge of our own galaxy overhead often, but less intensely than we did even a decade ago. The orange glow of Salem and Christiansburg’s 460 bypass lighting have obliterated a uncertain portion our stars by their misdirected lights. Urban sky glow can extend up to 150 miles from its source.

To appreciate the growth in numbers of errant light sources that lead to astronomical sky pollution, one needs do no more than look at a night map of the world from space ( or remember a flight you’ve taken anywhere in the eastern US after dark. It is truly amazing how lit-up our nation is at all hours! (See

The surprising thing to me is how much of that ground-produced light is allowed to shine UP into space rather than out and down where it is needed. This is known as clutter: bright, confusing and excessive groupings of light sources that contribute to urban sky glow, light trespass and glare.

Outdoor lighting that shines directly upward is reported to waste 3.6 million tons of coal or 12.9 million barrels of oil a year. This flagrant misuse of energy doesn’t even include lights left on in cities overnight in empty office buildings.

Better lighting technology is possible (including shielding and motion-sensing), and might soon be mandated. offers both educational and practical information on using less and better lighting–a future change that must start at home.

Besides unwanted light in the sky, there is matter of environmental light pollution and its impact on both wildlife and human health and behavior. The most widely recognized consequences of stray light on wildlife lies in its effect on migrating birds and sea turtles.

The response to light among earth’s creatures is hardwired into their nervous systems, and beachfront lighting or illuminated towers or skyscrapers give signals that misdirect them to their deaths. Hundreds of millions of birds die every year from collisions with illuminated towers and buildings. We’re only just beginning to appreciate the unintended impact of light injury, and not just for the wildlife.

Studies show that the circadian (daily light-dark) cycle controls from ten to fifteen percent of our genes, so the disruption of this pattern can cause a lot of health problems–even cancers. This is particularly an issue for shift workers over time. You will hear more about the role of light in human health in the coming years.

In June 2009, the American Medical Association “adopted resolutions that support the reduction of light pollution and glare and advocate for the use of energy efficient, fully shielded outdoor lighting. Ongoing research continues to probe the connection between natural darkness and human health.”

Let’s start small and locally to re-embrace the dark. Visit a nearby observatory at SELU, Apple Ridge, or Primland to see what you’ve been missing in the cosmos. Take yourself and your children out at night this summer, regularly and on purpose. Carry along a copy of “Stars: A New Way to See Them” by H. A. Rey (highly recommended by my kids!) Become reacquainted with the dome of night and the wonders it can offer. Light up a child’s life by introducing them to one of our lesser-known natural resources: the marvel of Floyd County’s star-studded darkness! [Resources for this article]

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. More than a decade ago, I was an outdoors instructor with a Scout troop in SC. We would take the boys camping once a month in a 500,000 acre national forest just north of Charleston.
    Not sure, but I think the trees cut down a lot of the light clutter. We were able to see thousands of stars. I was able to teach the boys things about the stars that they can no longer use because they can’t see them anymore!