The beautiful side of light pollution

In Southern Ontario, long, frigid February nights may seem particularly abysmal but at this time last year, a couple of photographers in our region captured the dark sky filled with vertical streaks of coloured light. Though Science and Weather Reporter Nicole Mortillaro romantically referred to the pillars as “one of winter’s gifts, an almost apologetic gesture for the biting cold,” the real explanation for them is more down to earth.

Winter ice crystals normally float through the air at a high altitude but when they occasionally move closer to the ground they start reflecting light. The pillars look like search lights shooting light up into the sky but in actual fact, the crystals are acting as reflectors, bouncing light back down from light sources on the ground. In other words, the ice crystals are reacting to light pollution. Here’s a quick video showing more photos of these beautiful pillars.

Most of us have a general idea that light pollution isn’t good. The most obvious effect is not being able to see our gorgeous star-filled skies. But the “continuous twilight” effect artificially created at night by urban lighting is also affecting the lives of the animals that share our parks, greenbelts and even our own backyards. The mating habits, feeding patterns and navigational skills of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects are all impacted. The International Dark-Sky Association is a great resource if you want to know exactly how harmful it can be, what exactly is at stake and how much (down to the watt and lumen) light can work best to solve residential outdoor lighting issues.

But, you can significantly reduce light pollution in your own backyard just by taking these simple steps:

  1. Assess your outdoor light fixtures and ask yourself whether each needs to be as bright as it is. You can still keep an area safe and accessible while contributing less light pollution by simply choosing lower wattage lightbulbs. You’ll save energy, too.
  2. Avoid illuminating trees and garden fixtures with bright spotlights that point upwards. You can get similar dramatic effects with softer lights that are installed to point down on the areas you want highlighted.
  3. Turn off outdoor lighting when you turn in.
  4. Check out the short video below for other easy tips.

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