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London’s light pollution is so bad it can power solar panels at night

London at night - Jason Hawkes/Jason Hawkes
London at night - Jason Hawkes/Jason Hawkes

Light pollution is now so bad in London at night that it can power solar panels, experts have warned.

The steady growth of illumination from neon signs, office blocks and transport networks is creating a permanently lit world, which is damaging human health and wildlife and blocking out the night sky.

Kerem Asfuroglu, a dark sky advocate from lighting specialists Dark Source, believes that a future could become so light polluted, people might carry umbrellas to shade themselves from the excess glare.

He recently noticed that London's light pollution had become so bad it could power solar panels at night and, to highlight the issue, created an umbrella that can light up using solar cells that suck energy from the surrounding dazzle.

It was put to the test at Piccadilly Circus, where there was enough light from advertisements, buses and businesses to power bulbs in the fabric seams.

Speaking at a recent Dark and Quiet Skies conference, organised by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the UK Space Agency, Mr Asfuroglu said: “This keeps me awake at night thinking what the future of lighting will be, because we’re at such an alarming rate of getting brighter and brighter.

Charging solar panels

“The light pollution in London is so bad, not only horizontal but vertical illumination as well that you can charge solar panels at night. So we decided to do something with that, and we had the idea of coming up with an artistic project that really showed the level of light pollution.

“This is a cultural issue as well as an environmental one. Our visual system is very sensitive to contrast at night and our perception of the base level of darkness is now very saturated and diluted which will impact on us significantly.”

A recent study showed that the night sky is brightening by 9.6 per cent on average globally each year, as light pollution gets worse.

The problem is so bad that a child born today would see fewer than half the stars currently visible by the time they reach adulthood.

Dr Hannah Dalgleish, a researcher in astronomy and society at the University of Oxford, warned that excess light has wide implications for the health of humans and animals.

Disrupting circadian rhythms

She is particularly concerned that the push to install LED lighting to save energy is having a damaging effect on circadian rhythms because the harsh blue-white glare confuses our natural body clock at the start and end of the day.

Disrupting circadian rhythms has been linked to a raft of physical and mental problems including sleep disorders, diabetes, obesity, depression and even cancer.

“Nature has obviously evolved over millions of years according to daytime and nighttime cycles, everything has a circadian rhythm,” she said.

“LEDs are now being implemented more than ever, and were thought to be great, environmentally friendly solutions, however they didn't realise that you're being exposed to this blue light and times of day when nature isn't used to it.

“So essentially you're kind of altering the behaviour of everything alive, whether it's a tree that might be budding two weeks later or a hedgehog that cannot move around because they require dark corridors and everyone is lighting up their gardens.

“Lots of insects are nocturnal pollinators, so if those insects aren't pollinating at night anymore. That's really going to have significant repercussions on agriculture.”

Possible impact on crime

Experts warned that too much lighting is also a security issue because human eyes are very good at seeing in the dark, but lose ability in the glare from bright night lighting, which can leave them more at risk.

While local authorities often install nighttime lighting to prevent crime, it may have the opposite result. One study found that turning street lights off on one street shifted crime to neighbouring areas with lights.

And too much lighting is also robbing youngsters of the chance to enjoy a night sky full of stars.

A European child born today who could see 250 stars when born, would be able to see just 100 by the time they turned 26, a study by the German Research Centre for Geosciences found.

Dr Dalgleish added: “All these young people that are growing up without ever having seen the stars and how many scientists and artists and poets might [we] be losing because they just had no experience?” she added.