Destroying the Darkness

Have you seen the stars lately? Not likely. If you live in Nacogdoches, Lufkin, or many other towns and cities in Texas, your ability to see the stars has been steadily eroding. Only a few bright stars and a couple of planets can be seen from our towns. We’ve been systematically destroying the darkness. Streetlights, floodlights, neon lights, fluorescent and incandescent advertising fill the night sky with glare.

More recently, computerized digital signs with distractingly brilliant, moving animations and multiple messages have begun to appear along our streets and roads, and have been a hot subject of debate at city meetings in Nacogdoches. If you think cell phones are dangerous and mind-numbing when used by drivers, imagine becoming spellbound watching a digital moving picture on a signboard while trying to operate a motor vehicle.

Some cars now have video screens to enable passengers to while away their riding time watching TV without ever having to look outside. Thankfully, it is illegal for these to be where the driver can see them – for obvious reasons.

Particularly objectionable are brilliant halogen lights at shopping centers, filling stations, and convenience store parking lots. At night the blinding lighting at the Exxon station at Austin and University in Nacogdoches is one of the worst examples, although it is by no means alone. Properly shielded lights would have provided plenty of light there and cost much less to operate without filling the darkness with painful, wasted glare, making the property look cheap and garish, as well as blinding approaching drivers.

Brilliant lights are so distracting and disorienting that they pose a potential danger to drivers. The implications of that could be impressively obvious if a dazzled driver ever slams into another vehicle and the courts find that the lighting contributed to the accident, holding a business liable for substantial monetary damages.

Even science is being compromised by the destruction of darkness. Dr. Norman Markworth, Regents Professor of Astronomy at SFASU, is trying to limit outdoor lighting within 5 miles of the university’s observatory. Encroaching lighting threatens to make continuing research at the facility difficult or impossible.

Over the last 10 years, mercury vapor dawn-to-dusk lights seem to have sprouted like glowing, electrical mushrooms on almost every rural home site. Safety specialists and police departments have long said that a better solution would be motion detecting lights that only come on when they sense a warm, moving object. Motion sensing lights provide surprises for criminals and can be tied to audible alarms as well. Besides, why continue to pour your money into a local power company for light you don’t need. They love it, but you shouldn’t.

Many communities across the country have passed ordinances restricting outdoor lighting to full cutoff fixtures that direct light only downward. In some cases, intrusive, objectionable light has successfully been stopped by lawsuits holding light polluters legally and financially responsible for “light trespass.” Such suits have been filed successfully even by individuals when their neighbor’s night lighting glared into their home. So, even the law says we deserve dark nights.

Full cutoff sodium vapor lights use appproximately 1/3 less electricity than energy-wasting mercury vapor lights. The State of Texas now mandates that all new or replacement highway lighting must use these fixtures. According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), an organization dedicated to preserving and retrieving our star-studded nights, poorly designed lighting wastes millions of dollars’ worth of electricity each year in the United States. Visit the IDA’s website at for much more information and to find out what you can do to help preserve the night.

Aside from questions of science, economics, safety, and unpleasant glare, a Texas treasure is being destroyed. Our night skies were once famous - black velvet sprinkled with shattered diamonds, gleaming and sparkling in inky darkness. Not anymore. “The stars at night are NOT SO BRIGHT, deep in the heart of Texas” may soon be our new anthem. Without significant changes in outdoor lighting, your children will grow up never having the special relationship with the night sky that is owed to them. A bond with their universe will have been lost. But what the heck! We still have TV and computers to entertain us day and night. Who needs darkness?

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.