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The sky at night – and pollution blight

By Mark Andrews | Walsall | News | Published:

Out of darkness cometh light is the motto of Philip Barnard's home town. If only he had known how true that would become.

The sky at night, viewed from Stiperstones in the Shropshire Hills

As an amateur astronomer of more than 60 years, Philip is only too well aware of how the West Midlands' once dark skies have been blighted by light pollution.

"So many people have these huge security lights, they light up everything," he says.

"Sometimes I can read a newspaper in my kitchen from the 500-Watt bulbs outside."

Mr Barnard, a retired chemist, says the ready availability of cheap, powerful LED lighting makes the life of an astronomer very different from when he first joined Wolverhampton Astronomical Society in 1952.

Ron Iremonger

The Campaign to Protect Rural England is so concerned about the proliferation of powerful lighting that it is now asking members of the public to map how their area is affected in an audit of light pollution. The CPRE's Star Count 2019 urges people to record how many stars they can see with the naked eye.

"Dark, starry skies are one of the most magical sights the countryside can offer," says a spokesman for the CPRE.

"But light pollution means many of us can’t see the stars. We want to reconnect people with the wonder of our glorious night skies."

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Mr Barnard says there are still some areas which offer unspoilt views for the astronomer, but they are getting fewer and further between. Barr Beacon, near Walsall, is popular spot, although it is inaccessible to vehicles after dark. Sedgley Beacon in Dudley, and clear areas of Cannock Chase are also good.

"However, for this star count any reasonably dark site away from urban glow, with a good southern horizon, would be useful," he says.

Ron Iremonger, of Shropshire Astronomical Society, says it is still possible to enjoy the majesty of our skies, but you may need to travel to see them at their best.

The top of the Long Mynd is a good starting point, says the 69-year-old.

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"It's not perfect, you have got light pollution coming from security cameras and all that sort of stuff," he adds.

"We have an observatory in Rodington village hall, but you have got Telford just over the way. We get some reasonable observations from their, unless you have got rain and clouds."

Ron was introduced to astronomy as a five-year-old by his father, who had served as a ship's navigator at the turn of the 20th century.

"He used to navigate by the stars, and he would point them out to me," he says. "We would be out walking, and he would say that's Orion, that's the Little Bear."

But Ron says the growth of many towns has had a significant impact since his early days of stargazing

Stars are born – a cloud of glowing gas surrounded by a green haze as new stars are created in the constellation of Orion.

"When I was a boy in the 50s, you didn't have to go very far, you could get a good view from home," he says.

"If you look at Shrewsbury, it almost seems to have doubled in size over the past 10 or 20 years, with all the new houses that have been built. And everybody has got these security lights."

The CPRE campaign, which is being run in partnership with the British Astronomical Society, runs until February 23.

To take part, people are asked to choose a clear night, with no haze or clouds, and then wait until after 7pm so the sky is fully dark.

They should look south into the night sky, find the Orion constellation, with its four corners and ‘three-star belt’. Taking a few moments let their eyes adjust, they are asked to simply count the number of stars they can see within the oblong made by the four corner stars. The four stars that make up the corner should not be included, but three in the middle, which make up the belt can be.

"If you see less than 10 stars, this indicates severe light pollution, and if you can see over 30 stars, you're looking at a truly dark sky," says a CPRE spokesman.

People are asked to record their results, and submit them on the CPRE website by February 23.

"The best time to do the count is from today to February 9, when the moon is smallest, so the skies are darkest," says the CPRE spokesman.

Mr Barnard says the main requirement for taking part in the Star Count was to choose somewhere with a good southern horizon.

"Your own backyard will suffice if that condition is satisfied," he says.

For Philip Barnard it was the Dan Dare comic strip about space travel in the Eagle comic of the 1950s which sparked his interest in the skies.

"It was the excitement of exploring the unknown," he says.

"It is all about the exploration of the unknown and the means to understanding the universe and our place in it.

"The real science began with the invention of the spectroscope in the 19th century, when sunlight and starlight could be analysed and compared directly with the results of analysis, by physicists and chemists, of compounds and gases here on Earth. The universe was proven to be made of the same stuff for the first time. It was also the beginnings of our understanding of how the universe has evolved.

And while light pollution is a source of irritation to astronomers, there are also real implications for our wildlife.

Martin Filsack, an expert on light pollution from Stourbridge, says too much artificial light can cause all sorts of problems for the environment.

"Light in the wrong places is definitely a problem for wildlife, it alters animal behaviour," he says.

The British Astronomical Society's Commission for Dark Skies, set up to highlight the dangers of light pollution, asks if humanity really has the right to colonise the darkness.

"Vast numbers of the world's species are nocturnal," the organisation claims.

"The invasion of their world by artificial lighting has consequences that we are only just beginning to investigate and quantify.

"Animals disturbed, and killed, as a result of stray light have no curtains to pull. There are many reports of its effects on large numbers of different species, including insects, birds, fish, reptiles and mammals."

According to the Butterfly Conservation Trust, moths are in danger, possibly due to the fact that they are attracted to street lights where they're more visible to predators like toads and bats. This in turn draws toads and bats into built-up areas, making them vulnerable to fatal encounters with domestic cats and traffic.

The international campaign group Globe at Night adds: "In disrupting ecosystems, light pollution poses a serious threat in particular to nocturnal wildlife, having negative impacts on plant and animal physiology.

"It can confuse the migratory patterns of animals, alter competitive interactions of animals, change predator-prey relations, and cause physiological harm."

Martyn Filsak also warns that light pollution can cause long-term health problems for humans too.

"If you have got light shining into your bedroom at night, it can affect the quality of your sleep, and that can have an effect on your health," he says.

Emma Marrington, dark skies campaigner at CPRE, says: "A dark sky filled with stars is one of the most magical sights our countryside has to offer, and for thousands of years our night sky has been a source of information, fascination and inspiration for all of humanity.

"Increasingly, however, too many people are denied the opportunity to experience this truly natural wonder."

*To join in the CPRE and British Astronomical Association Star Count 2019 see the website cpre.org.uk/starcount

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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