Light pollution

This article is about light pollution in the visible spectrum. For information on pollution in the radio spectrum, see radio spectrum pollution.
Satellite view of Paris at night (France)
This time exposure photo of New York City at night shows skyglow, one form of light pollution.
A comparison of the view of the night sky from a small rural town (top) and a metropolitan area (bottom). Light pollution dramatically reduces the visibility of stars.

Light pollution, also known as photopollution or luminous pollution, is excessive, misdirected or obtrusive artificial light. As a major side-effect of urbanization, it is blamed for compromising health, disrupting ecosystems and spoiling aesthetic environments.


Light Pollution is the adding-of/added light itself, in analogy to added sound, carbon dioxide, etc. Adverse consequences are multiple; some of them may not be known yet. Scientific definitions thus include the following:

The first three of the above four scientific definitions describe the state of the environment. The fourth (and newest) one describes the process of polluting by light.

Light pollution competes with starlight in the night sky for urban residents, interferes with astronomical observatories,[5] and, like any other form of pollution, disrupts ecosystems and has adverse health effects. Light pollution can be divided into two main types:

Light pollution is a side effect of industrial civilization. Its sources include building exterior and interior lighting, advertising, commercial properties, offices, factories, streetlights, and illuminated sporting venues. It is most severe in highly industrialized, densely populated areas of North America, Europe, and Japan and in major cities in the Middle East and North Africa like Tehran and Cairo, but even relatively small amounts of light can be noticed and create problems. Since the early 1980s, a global dark-sky movement has emerged, with concerned people campaigning to reduce the amount of light pollution. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is one non-profit advocacy group involved in this movement.

Impact on energy usage

Energy conservation advocates contend that light pollution must be addressed by changing the habits of society, so that lighting is used more efficiently, with less waste and less creation of unwanted or unneeded illumination. Several industry groups also recognize light pollution as an important issue. For example, the Institution of Lighting Engineers in the United Kingdom provides its members with information about light pollution, the problems it causes, and how to reduce its impact.[6]

Since not everyone is irritated by the same lighting sources, it is common for one person's light "pollution" to be light that is desirable for another. One example of this is found in advertising, when an advertiser wishes for particular lights to be bright and visible, even though others find them annoying. Other types of light pollution are more certain. For instance, light that accidentally crosses a property boundary and annoys a neighbor is generally wasted and pollutive light.

Disputes are still common when deciding appropriate action, and differences in opinion over what light is considered reasonable, and who should be responsible, mean that negotiation must sometimes take place between parties. Where objective measurement is desired, light levels can be quantified by field measurement or mathematical modeling, with results typically displayed as an isophote map or light contour map. Authorities have also taken a variety of measures for dealing with light pollution, depending on the interests, beliefs and understandings of the society involved. Measures range from doing nothing at all, to implementing strict laws and regulations about how lights may be installed and used.


An example of a light pollution source, using a broad spectrum metal halide lamp, pointing upward at Uniqema factory, Gouda, the Netherlands.

Light pollution is a broad term that refers to multiple problems, all of which are caused by inefficient, unappealing, or (arguably) unnecessary use of artificial light. Specific categories of light pollution include light trespass, over-illumination, glare, light clutter, and skyglow. A single offending light source often falls into more than one of these categories.

Light trespass

Light trespass occurs when unwanted light enters one's property, for instance, by shining over a neighbor's fence. A common light trespass problem occurs when a strong light enters the window of one's home from the outside, causing problems such as sleep deprivation. A number of cities in the U.S. have developed standards for outdoor lighting to protect the rights of their citizens against light trespass. To assist them, the International Dark-Sky Association has developed a set of model lighting ordinances.[7]

The Dark-Sky Association was started to reduce the light going up into the sky which reduces visibility of stars (see Skyglow below). This is any light which is emitted more than 90° above nadir. By limiting light at this 90° mark they have also reduced the light output in the 80–90° range which creates most of the light trespass issues.

U.S. federal agencies may also enforce standards and process complaints within their areas of jurisdiction. For instance, in the case of light trespass by white strobe lighting from communication towers in excess of FAA minimum lighting requirements[8] the Federal Communications Commission maintains an Antenna Structure Registration database[9] information which citizens may use to identify offending structures and provides a mechanism for processing citizen inquiries and complaints.[10] The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has also incorporated a credit for reducing the amount of light trespass and sky glow into their environmentally friendly building standard known as LEED.

Light trespass can be reduced by selecting light fixtures which limit the amount of light emitted more than 80° above the nadir. The IESNA definitions include full cutoff (0%), cutoff (10%), and semi-cutoff (20%). (These definitions also include limits on light emitted above 90° to reduce sky glow.)


Main article: Over-illumination
An office building is illuminated by high pressure sodium (HPS) lamps shining upward, of which much light goes into the sky and neighboring apartment blocks and causes light pollution.

Over-illumination is the excessive use of light. Specifically within the United States, over-illumination is responsible for approximately two million barrels of oil per day in energy wasted. This is based upon U.S. consumption of equivalent of 18.8 million barrels per day (2,990,000 m3/d) of petroleum.[11] It is further noted in the same U.S. Department of Energy source that over 30% of all primary energy is consumed by commercial, industrial and residential sectors. Energy audits of existing buildings demonstrate that the lighting component of residential, commercial and industrial uses consumes about 20–40% of those land uses, variable with region and land use. (Residential use lighting consumes only 10–30% of the energy bill while commercial buildings' major use is lighting.[12]) Thus lighting energy accounts for about four or five million barrels of oil (equivalent) per day. Again energy audit data demonstrates that about 30–60% of energy consumed in lighting is unneeded or gratuitous.[13]

An alternative calculation starts with the fact that commercial building lighting consumes in excess of 81.68 terawatts (1999 data) of electricity,[14] according to the U.S. DOE. Thus commercial lighting alone consumes about four to five million barrels per day (equivalent) of petroleum, in line with the alternate rationale above to estimate U.S. lighting energy consumption. Even among developed countries there are large differences in patterns of light use. American cities emit 3–5 times more light to space per capita compared to German cities.[15]

Over-illumination stems from several factors:

Most of these issues can be readily corrected with available, inexpensive technology, and with resolution of landlord/tenant practices that create barriers to rapid correction of these matters. Most importantly, public awareness would need to improve for industrialized countries to realize the large payoff in reducing over-illumination.

In certain cases an over-illumination lighting technique may be needed. For example, indirect lighting is often used to obtain a "softer" look, since hard direct lighting is generally found less desirable for certain surfaces, such as skin. The indirect lighting method is perceived as more cozy and suits bars, restaurants and living quarters. It is also possible to block the direct lighting effect by adding softening filters or other solutions, though intensity will be reduced.


Main article: Glare (vision)

Glare can be categorized into different types. One such classification is described in a book by Bob Mizon, coordinator for the British Astronomical Association's Campaign for Dark Skies.[17] According to this classification:

According to Mario Motta, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, "... glare from bad lighting is a public-health hazard—especially the older you become. Glare light scattering in the eye causes loss of contrast and leads to unsafe driving conditions, much like the glare on a dirty windshield from low-angle sunlight or the high beams from an oncoming car."[18] In essence bright and/or badly shielded lights around roads can partially blind drivers or pedestrians and contribute to accidents.

The blinding effect is caused in large part by reduced contrast due to light scattering in the eye by excessive brightness, or to reflection of light from dark areas in the field of vision, with luminance similar to the background luminance. This kind of glare is a particular instance of disability glare, called veiling glare. (This is not the same as loss of accommodation of night vision which is caused by the direct effect of the light itself on the eye.)

Light clutter

The Las Vegas Strip displays excessive groupings of colorful lights. This is a classic example of light clutter.

Light clutter refers to excessive groupings of lights. Groupings of lights may generate confusion, distract from obstacles (including those that they may be intended to illuminate), and potentially cause accidents. Clutter is particularly noticeable on roads where the street lights are badly designed, or where brightly lit advertising surrounds the roadways. Depending on the motives of the person or organization that installed the lights, their placement and design can even be intended to distract drivers, and can contribute to accidents.

Clutter may also present a hazard in the aviation environment if aviation safety lighting must compete for pilot attention with non-relevant lighting.[19] For instance, runway lighting may be confused with an array of suburban commercial lighting and aircraft collision avoidance lights may be confused with ground lights.


Main article: Skyglow
Mexico City at night, with a brightly illuminated sky
In pristine areas, clouds appear black and blot out the stars. In urban areas, clouds strongly enhance skyglow.

Skyglow refers to the diffuse glow that can be seen over populated areas. It arises from light reflected from illuminated surfaces and from light escaping directly upward from incompletely shielded or upward-directed light fixtures, which then is scattered (redirected) by the atmosphere back toward the ground. The brightness of skyglow is affected strongly by the amount of light used, the shielding characteristics of the light fixtures, and by the color or spectral content of the light sources. Though it is commonly thought that Rayleigh scattering strongly increases the brightness of skyglow arising from white sources with strong blue and green emission, the dominant spectral effect has been shown to arise from the Purkinje effect instead.[20][21][22] Because of the eye's increased sensitivity to blue and green light when adapted to very low luminance levels (such as those in even moderately polluted clear night skies), white light sources such as white LEDs contribute significantly more to skyglow than an equal amount of yellow light from sources such as high-pressure sodium, low-pressure sodium, or amber AlGaInP LEDs. Sky glow is of particular irritation to astronomers, as it interferes with astronomical observations, but multitudes suffer from the decreased visibility of star-filled night skies.

Skyglow brightness can be measured with instruments such as the Sky Quality Meters (SQM), or visually using the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale.[23][24] The nine-class Bortle Scale rates the darkness of the night sky and the visibility of its phenomena, such as the Milky Way, gegenschein and the zodiacal light (easily masked by skyglow), providing a detailed description of each level on the scale (with Class 1 being the best).

Light is particularly problematic for amateur astronomers, whose ability to observe the night sky from their property is inhibited by any stray light from nearby. Most major optical astronomical observatories are surrounded by zones of strictly enforced restrictions on light emissions to limit skyglow.

Direct skyglow is reduced by selecting lighting fixtures which limit the amount of light emitted above the horizontal (90° above the nadir). Indirect skyglow produced by reflections from illuminated surfaces is harder to manage; the only effective method for limiting it is by minimizing over-illumination. But it has to be taken into account that, according to late 2010 publications, Italian regions using full cut off lighting only does not increase skyglow.[25] Anyway, light reflected upwards by dark surfaces such as roads or buildings can be considered as minor, so debate about the contribution of indirect skyglow will continue.

Skyglow is made considerably worse when clouds are present.[26] While this has no effect on astronomical observations (which are not possible at visible wavelengths under cloud cover), it is very important in the context of ecological light pollution. Since cloudy nights in artificially lit areas can be up to ten thousand times brighter than in natural areas,[27] any organisms that are affected by sky glow (e.g. zooplankton and fish that visually prey on them) are much more likely to have their ordinary behavior disturbed on cloudy nights.

Impacts of skyglow are explored in the photography and timelapse project SKYGLOW, created in collaboration with International Dark-Sky Association.

Measurement and global effects

False colors show various intensities of radiation, both direct and indirect, from artificial light sources that reach space

Measuring the effect of sky glow on a global scale is a complex procedure. The natural atmosphere is not completely dark, even in the absence of terrestrial sources of light and illumination from the Moon. This is caused by two main sources: airglow and scattered light.

At high altitudes, primarily above the mesosphere, there is enough UV radiation from the sun of very short wavelength to cause ionization. When the ions collide with electrically neutral particles they recombine and emit photons in the process, causing airglow. The degree of ionization is sufficiently large to allow a constant emission of radiation even during the night when the upper atmosphere is in the Earth's shadow. Lower in the atmosphere all of the solar photons with energies above the ionization potential of N2 and O2 have already been absorbed by the higher layers and thus no appreciable ionization occurs.

Apart from emitting light, the sky also scatters incoming light, primarily from distant stars and the Milky Way, but also the zodiacal light, sunlight that is reflected and backscattered from interplanetary dust particles.

The amount of airglow and zodiacal light is quite variable (depending, amongst other things on sunspot activity and the Solar cycle) but given optimal conditions the darkest possible sky has a brightness of about 22 magnitude/square arcsecond. If a full moon is present, the sky brightness increases to about 18 magnitude/sq. arcsecond depending on local atmospheric transparency, 40 times brighter than the darkest sky. In densely populated areas a sky brightness of 17 magnitude/sq. arcsecond is not uncommon, or as much as 100 times brighter than is natural.

To precisely measure how bright the sky gets, night time satellite imagery of the earth is used as raw input for the number and intensity of light sources. These are put into a physical model[28] of scattering due to air molecules and aerosoles to calculate cumulative sky brightness. Maps that show the enhanced sky brightness have been prepared for the entire world.[29]

Inspection of the area surrounding Madrid reveals that the effects of light pollution caused by a single large conglomeration can be felt up to 100 km (62 mi) away from the center. Global effects of light pollution are also made obvious. The entire area consisting of southern England, Netherlands, Belgium, west Germany, and northern France have a sky brightness of at least 2 to 4 times above normal (see above right). The only places in continental Europe where the sky can attain its natural darkness are in northern Scandinavia and in islands far from the continent.

In North America the situation is comparable. There is a significant problem with light pollution ranging from the Canadian Maritime Provinces to the American Southwest. The International Dark-Sky Association works to designate areas that have high quality night skies. These areas are supported by communities and organizations that are dedicated to reducing light pollution (e.g.Dark-sky preserve). The National Park Service Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division has measured night sky quality in national park units across the U.S. Sky quality in the U.S. ranges from pristine (Capitol Reef National Park and Big Bend National Park) to severely degraded (Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and Biscayne National Park).[30] The National Park Service Night Sky Program monitoring database is available online (2015).[31]

Light pollution in Hong Kong was declared the 'worst on the planet' in March 2013.[32]

In June 2016, it was estimated that one third of the world's population could no longer see the Milky Way, including 80% of Americans and 60% of Europeans. Singapore was found to be the most light-polluted country in the world.[33][34]

A composite satellite image of Earth at night in 1994–95
A similar image from 2012 illustrating the growth in light pollution.


Energy waste

Lighting is responsible for one-fourth of all electricity consumption worldwide, and case studies have shown that several forms of over-illumination constitute energy wastage, including non-beneficial upward direction of night-time lighting. In 2007, Terna, the company responsible for managing electricity flow in Italy, reported a saving of 645.2 million kWh in electricity consumption during the daylight saving period from April to October. It attributes this saving to the delayed need for artificial lighting during the evenings.

In Australia,

... public lighting is the single largest source of local government's greenhouse gas emissions, typically accounting for 30 to 50% of their emissions. There are 1.94 million public lights — one for every 10 Australians — that annually cost A$210 million, use 1,035 GWh of electricity and are responsible for 1.15 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Current public lighting in Australia, particularly for minor roads and streets, uses large amounts of energy and financial resources, while often failing to provide high quality lighting. There are many ways to improve lighting quality while reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions as well as lowering costs.[35]

Effects on animal and human health and psychology

Streetlights in the skiing resort Kastelruth in South Tyrol.

Medical research on the effects of excessive light on the human body suggests that a variety of adverse health effects may be caused by light pollution or excessive light exposure, and some lighting design textbooks[36] use human health as an explicit criterion for proper interior lighting. Health effects of over-illumination or improper spectral composition of light may include: increased headache incidence, worker fatigue, medically defined stress, decrease in sexual function and increase in anxiety.[37][38][39][40] Likewise, animal models have been studied demonstrating unavoidable light to produce adverse effect on mood and anxiety.[41] For those who need to be awake at night, light at night also has an acute effect on alertness and mood.[42]

In 2007, "shift work that involves circadian disruption" was listed as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer. (IARC Press release No. 180).[43][44] Multiple studies have documented a correlation between night shift work and the increased incidence of breast and prostate cancer.[45][46][47][48][49][50]

A more recent discussion (2009), written by Professor Steven Lockley, Harvard Medical School, can be found in the CfDS handbook "Blinded by the Light?".[51] Chapter 4, "Human health implications of light pollution" states that "... light intrusion, even if dim, is likely to have measurable effects on sleep disruption and melatonin suppression. Even if these effects are relatively small from night to night, continuous chronic circadian, sleep and hormonal disruption may have longer-term health risks". The New York Academy of Sciences hosted a meeting in 2009 on Circadian Disruption and Cancer.[52] Red light suppresses melatonin the least.[53]

In June 2009, the American Medical Association developed a policy in support of control of light pollution. News about the decision emphasized glare as a public health hazard leading to unsafe driving conditions. Especially in the elderly, glare produces loss of contrast, obscuring night vision.[18]

Disruption of ecosystems

When artificial light affects organisms and ecosystems it is called ecological light pollution. While light at night can be beneficial, neutral, or damaging for individual species, its presence invariably disturbs ecosystems. For example, some species of spiders avoid lit areas, while other species are happy to build their spider web directly on a lamp post. Since lamp posts attract many flying insects, the spiders that don't mind light gain an advantage over the spiders that avoid it. This is a simple example of the way in which species frequencies and food webs can be disturbed by the introduction of light at night.

Light pollution poses a serious threat in particular to nocturnal wildlife, having negative impacts on plant and animal physiology. It can confuse animal navigation, alter competitive interactions, change predator-prey relations, and cause physiological harm.[54] The rhythm of life is orchestrated by the natural diurnal patterns of light and dark, so disruption to these patterns impacts the ecological dynamics.[55]

Studies suggest that light pollution around lakes prevents zooplankton, such as Daphnia, from eating surface algae, causing algal blooms that can kill off the lakes' plants and lower water quality.[56] Light pollution may also affect ecosystems in other ways. For example, lepidopterists and entomologists have documented that nighttime light may interfere with the ability of moths and other nocturnal insects to navigate.[57] Night-blooming flowers that depend on moths for pollination may be affected by night lighting, as there is no replacement pollinator that would not be affected by the artificial light. This can lead to species decline of plants that are unable to reproduce, and change an area's longterm ecology.

A 2009 study[58] also suggests deleterious impacts on animals and ecosystems because of perturbation of polarized light or artificial polarisation of light (even during the day, because direction of natural polarization of sun light and its reflexion is a source of information for a lot of animals). This form of pollution is named polarized light pollution (PLP). Unnatural polarized light sources can trigger maladaptive behaviors in polarization-sensitive taxa and alter ecological interactions.[58]

Lights on tall structures can disorient migrating birds. Estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the number of birds killed after being attracted to tall towers range from 4 to 5 million per year to an order of magnitude higher.[59] The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) works with building owners in Toronto, Canada and other cities to reduce mortality of birds by turning out lights during migration periods.

Similar disorientation has also been noted for bird species migrating close to offshore production and drilling facilities. Studies carried out by Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij b.v. (NAM) and Shell have led to development and trial of new lighting technologies in the North Sea. In early 2007, the lights were installed on the Shell production platform L15. The experiment proved a great success since the number of birds circling the platform declined by 50 to 90%.[60]

Sea turtle hatchlings emerging from nests on beaches are another casualty of light pollution. It is a common misconception that hatchling sea turtles are attracted to the moon. Rather, they find the ocean by moving away from the dark silhouette of dunes and their vegetation, a behavior with which artificial lights interfere.[61] The breeding activity and reproductive phenology of toads, however, are cued by moonlight.[62] Juvenile seabirds may also be disoriented by lights as they leave their nests and fly out to sea.[63][64][65] Amphibians and reptiles are also affected by light pollution. Introduced light sources during normally dark periods can disrupt levels of melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates photoperiodic physiology and behaviour. Some species of frogs and salamanders utilize a light-dependent "compass" to orient their migratory behaviour to breeding sites. Introduced light can also cause developmental irregularities, such as retinal damage, reduced sperm production, and genetic mutation.[54][66][67][68][69][70]

In September 2009, the 9th European Dark-Sky Symposium in Armagh, Northern Ireland had a session on the environmental effects of light at night (LAN). It dealt with bats, turtles, the "hidden" harms of LAN, and many other topics.[71] The environmental effects of LAN were mentioned as early as 1897, in a Los Angeles Times article. The following is an excerpt from that article, called "Electricity and English songbirds":

An English journal has become alarmed at the relation of electricity to songbirds, which it maintains is closer than that of cats and fodder crops. How many of us, it asks, foresee that electricity may extirpate the songbird?...With the exception of the finches, all the English songbirds may be said to be insectivorous, and their diet consists chiefly of vast numbers of very small insects which they collect from the grass and herbs before the dew is dry. As the electric light is finding its way for street illumination into the country parts of England, these poor winged atoms are slain by thousands at each light every warm summer evening....The fear is expressed, that when England is lighted from one end to the other with electricity the song birds will die out from the failure of their food supply.[72]

Effect on astronomy

The constellation Orion, imaged at left from dark skies, and at right from within the Provo/Orem, Utah metropolitan area.

Astronomy is very sensitive to light pollution. The night sky viewed from a city bears no resemblance to what can be seen from dark skies.[73] Skyglow (the scattering of light in the atmosphere) reduces the contrast between stars and galaxies and the sky itself, making it much harder to see fainter objects. This is one factor that has caused newer telescopes to be built in increasingly remote areas. Some astronomers use narrow-band "nebula filters" which only allow specific wavelengths of light commonly seen in nebulae, or broad-band "light pollution filters" which are designed to reduce (but not eliminate) the effects of light pollution by filtering out spectral lines commonly emitted by sodium- and mercury-vapor lamps, thus enhancing contrast and improving the view of dim objects such as galaxies and nebulae.[74] Unfortunately these light pollution reduction (LPR) filters are not a cure for light pollution. LPR filters reduce the brightness of the object under study and this limits the use of higher magnifications. LPR filters work by blocking light of certain wavelengths, which alters the color of the object, often creating a pronounced green cast. Furthermore, LPR filters only work on certain object types (mainly emission nebulae) and are of little use on galaxies and stars. No filter can match the effectiveness of a dark sky for visual or photographic purposes. Due to their low surface brightness, the visibility of diffuse sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies is affected by light pollution more than are stars. Most such objects are rendered invisible in heavily light polluted skies around major cities. A simple method for estimating the darkness of a location is to look for the Milky Way, which from truly dark skies appears bright enough to cast a shadow.[75]

Outskirts of the Atacama Desert, far from the light-polluted cities of northern Chile, the skies are pitch-black after sunset.[76]

In addition to skyglow, light trespass can impact observations when artificial light directly enters the tube of the telescope and is reflected from non-optical surfaces until it eventually reaches the eyepiece. This direct form of light pollution causes a glow across the field of view which reduces contrast. Light trespass also makes it hard for a visual observer to become sufficiently dark adapted. The usual measures to reduce this glare, if reducing the light directly is not an option, include flocking the telescope tube and accessories to reduce reflection, and putting a light shield (also usable as a dew shield) on the telescope to reduce light entering from angles other than those near the target. Under these conditions, some astronomers prefer to observe under a black cloth to ensure maximum dark adaptation. In one Italian regional lighting code this effect of stray light is defined as "optical pollution", due to the fact that there is a direct path from the light source to the "optic" – the observer's eye or telescope.

Increase in atmospheric pollution

A study presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco found that light pollution destroys nitrate radicals thus preventing the normal night time reduction of atmospheric smog produced by fumes emitted from cars and factories.[77][78] The study was presented by Harald Stark from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Reduction of natural sky polarization

Light pollution is mostly unpolarized, and its addition to moonlight results in a decreased polarization signal.

In the night, the polarization of the moonlit sky is very strongly reduced in the presence of urban light pollution, because scattered urban light is not strongly polarized.[79] Polarized moonlight can't be seen by humans, but is believed to be used by many animals for navigation.


This kind of LED droplight could reduce unnecessary light pollution in building interiors

Reducing light pollution implies many things, such as reducing sky glow, reducing glare, reducing light trespass, and reducing clutter. The method for best reducing light pollution, therefore, depends on exactly what the problem is in any given instance. Possible solutions include:

Improving lighting fixtures

A flat-lens cobra luminaire, which is a full-cutoff fixture, is very effective in reducing light pollution. It ensures that light is only directed below the horizontal, which means less light is wasted through directing it outwards and upwards.
This drop-lens cobra luminaire allows light to escape sideways and upwards, where it may cause problems.

The use of full cutoff lighting fixtures, as much as possible, is advocated by most campaigners for the reduction of light pollution. It is also commonly recommended that lights be spaced appropriately for maximum efficiency, and that number of luminaires being used as well as the wattage of each luminaire match the needs of the particular application (based on local lighting design standards).

Full cutoff fixtures first became available in 1959 with the introduction of General Electric's M100 fixture.[80]

A full cutoff fixture, when correctly installed, reduces the chance for light to escape above the plane of the horizontal. Light released above the horizontal may sometimes be lighting an intended target, but often serves no purpose. When it enters into the atmosphere, light contributes to sky glow. Some governments and organizations are now considering, or have already implemented, full cutoff fixtures in street lamps and stadium lighting.

The use of full cutoff fixtures help to reduce sky glow by preventing light from escaping above the horizontal. Full cutoff typically reduces the visibility of the lamp and reflector within a luminaire, so the effects of glare are also reduced. Campaigners also commonly argue that full cutoff fixtures are more efficient than other fixtures, since light that would otherwise have escaped into the atmosphere may instead be directed towards the ground. However, full cutoff fixtures may also trap more light in the fixture than other types of luminaires, corresponding to lower luminaire efficiency, suggesting a re-design of some luminaires may be necessary.

The use of full cutoff fixtures can allow for lower wattage lamps to be used in the fixtures, producing the same or sometimes a better effect, due to being more carefully controlled. In every lighting system, some sky glow also results from light reflected from the ground. This reflection can be reduced, however, by being careful to use only the lowest wattage necessary for the lamp, and setting spacing between lights appropriately.[81] Assuring luminaire setback is greater than 90° from highly reflective surfaces also diminishes reflectance.

A common criticism of full cutoff lighting fixtures is that they are sometimes not as aesthetically pleasing to look at. This is most likely because historically there has not been a large market specifically for full cutoff fixtures, and because people typically like to see the source of illumination. Due to the specificity with their direction of light, full cutoff fixtures sometimes also require expertise to install for maximum effect.

The effectiveness of using full cutoff roadway lights to combat light pollution has also been called into question. According to design investigations, luminaires with full cutoff distributions (as opposed to cutoff or semi cutoff, compared here[82]) have to be closer together to meet the same light level, uniformity and glare requirements specified by the IESNA. These simulations optimized the height and spacing of the lights while constraining the overall design to meet the IESNA requirements, and then compared total uplight and energy consumption of different luminaire designs and powers. Cutoff designs performed better than full cutoff designs, and semi-cutoff performed better than either cutoff or full cutoff. This indicates that, in roadway installations, over-illumination or poor uniformity produced by full cutoff fixtures may be more detrimental than direct uplight created by fewer cutoff or semi-cutoff fixtures. Therefore, the overall performance of existing systems could be improved more by reducing the number of luminaires than by switching to full cutoff designs.

The majority of Italian regions require "zero upward light", which usually implies use of overall full cut-off lamps for new luminaires, but violations are common.

However, using the definition of "light pollution" from some Italian regional bills (i.e., "every irradiance of artificial light outside competence areas and particularly upward the sky") only full cutoff design prevents light pollution. The Italian Lombardy region, where only full cutoff design is allowed (Lombardy act no. 17/2000, promoted by Cielobuio-coordination for the protection of the night sky), in 2007 had the lowest per capita energy consumption for public lighting in Italy. The same legislation also imposes a minimum distance between street lamps of about four times their height, so full cut off street lamps are the best solution to reduce both light pollution and electrical power usage.

Adjusting types of light sources

Several different types of light sources exist, each having different properties that affect their appropriateness for certain tasks, particularly efficiency and spectral power distribution. It is often the case that inappropriate light sources have been selected for a task, either due to ignorance or because more sophisticated light sources were unavailable at the time of installation. Therefore, badly chosen light sources often contribute unnecessarily to light pollution and energy waste. By re-assessing and changing the light sources used, it is often possible to reduce energy use and pollutive effects while simultaneously greatly improving efficiency and visibility.

Some types of light sources are listed in order of energy efficiency in the table below.

Type of light source Color Luminous effectiveness
(in lumens per watt)
LED street light usually white 150+ *
Low Pressure Sodium (LPS/SOX) yellow/amber 80–200
High Pressure Sodium (HPS/SON) pink/amber-white 90–130
Metal Halide bluish-white/white 60–120
Mercury-Vapour blue-greenish white 13–48
Incandescent yellow/white 8–25

Many astronomers request that nearby communities use low pressure sodium lights as much as possible, because the principal wavelength emitted is comparably easy to work around or in rare cases filter out.[83] The low cost of operating sodium lights is another feature. In 1980, for example, San Jose, California, replaced all street lamps with low pressure sodium lamps, whose light is easier for nearby Lick Observatory to filter out. Similar programs are now in place in Arizona and Hawaii.

Disadvantages of low pressure sodium lighting are that fixtures must usually be larger than competing fixtures, and that color cannot be distinguished, due to its emitting principally a single wavelength of light (see security lighting). Due to the substantial size of the lamp, particularly in higher wattages such as 135 W and 180 W, control of light emissions from low pressure sodium luminaires is more difficult. For applications requiring more precise direction of light (such as narrow roadways) the native lamp efficacy advantage of this lamp type is decreased and may be entirely lost compared to high pressure sodium lamps. Allegations that this also leads to higher amounts of light pollution from luminaires running these lamps arise principally because of older luminaires with poor shielding, still widely in use in the UK and in some other locations. Modern low-pressure sodium fixtures with better optics and full shielding, and the decreased skyglow impacts of yellow light preserve the luminous efficacy advantage of low-pressure sodium and result in most cases is less energy consumption and less visible light pollution. Unfortunately, due to continued lack of accurate information,[84] many lighting professionals continue to disparage low-pressure sodium, contributing to its decreased acceptance and specification in lighting standards and therefore its use. Another disadvantage of low-pressure sodium lamps is that some people find the characteristic yellow light very displeasing aesthetically.

Because of the scatter of light by the atmosphere, different sources produce dramatically different amounts of skyglow from the same amount of light sent into the atmosphere.

Re-designing lighting plans

In some cases, evaluation of existing plans has determined that more efficient lighting plans are possible. For instance, light pollution can be reduced by turning off unneeded outdoor lights, and only lighting stadiums when there are people inside. Timers are especially valuable for this purpose. One of the world's first coordinated legislative efforts to reduce the adverse effect of this pollution on the environment began in Flagstaff, Arizona, in the U.S. There, over three decades of ordinance development has taken place, with the full support of the population,[85] often with government support,[86] with community advocates,[87] and with the help of major local observatories,[88] including the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station. Each component helps to educate, protect and enforce the imperatives to intelligently reduce detrimental light pollution.

One example of a lighting plan assessment can be seen in a report originally commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the United Kingdom, and now available through the Department for Communities and Local Government.[89] The report details a plan to be implemented throughout the UK, for designing lighting schemes in the countryside, with a particular focus on preserving the environment.

In another example, the city of Calgary has recently replaced most residential street lights with models that are comparably energy efficient.[90] The motivation is primarily operation cost and environmental conservation. The costs of installation are expected to be regained through energy savings within six to seven years.

The Swiss Agency for Energy Efficiency (SAFE) uses a concept that promises to be of great use in the diagnosis and design of road lighting, "consommation électrique spécifique (CES)", which can be translated into English as "specific electric power consumption (SEC)".[91] Thus, based on observed lighting levels in a wide range of Swiss towns, SAFE has defined target values for electric power consumption per metre for roads of various categories. Thus, SAFE currently recommends an SEC of 2 to 3 watts per meter for roads of less than 10 metre width (4 to 6 watts per metre for wider roads). Such a measure provides an easily applicable environmental protection constraint on conventional "norms", which usually are based on the recommendations of lighting manufacturing interests, who may not take into account environmental criteria. In view of ongoing progress in lighting technology, target SEC values will need to be periodically revised downwards.

Crossroad in Alessandria, Italy: luminaires with mercury lamps are in the background, LED street lights in the middle, luminaires with high pressure sodium lamps are in the foreground.

A newer method for predicting and measuring various aspects of light pollution was described in the journal Lighting Research Technology (September 2008). Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center have developed a comprehensive method called Outdoor Site-Lighting Performance (OSP), which allows users to quantify, and thus optimize, the performance of existing and planned lighting designs and applications to minimize excessive or obtrusive light leaving the boundaries of a property. OSP can be used by lighting engineers immediately, particularly for the investigation of glow and trespass (glare analyses are more complex to perform and current commercial software does not readily allow them), and can help users compare several lighting design alternatives for the same site.[92]

In the effort to reduce light pollution, researchers have developed a "Unified System of Photometry," which is a way to measure how much or what kind of street lighting is needed. The Unified System of Photometry allows light fixtures to be designed to reduce energy use while maintaining or improving perceptions of visibility, safety, and security.[93] There was a need to create a new system of light measurement at night because the biological way in which the eye’s rods and cones process light is different in nighttime conditions versus daytime conditions. Using this new system of photometry, results from recent studies have indicated that replacing traditional, yellowish, high-pressure sodium (HPS) lights with "cool" white light sources, such as induction, fluorescent, ceramic metal halide, or LEDs can actually reduce the amount of electric power used for lighting while maintaining or improving visibility in nighttime conditions.[94]

The International Commission on Illumination, also known as the CIE from its French title, la Commission Internationale de l'Eclairage, will soon be releasing its own form of unified photometry for outdoor lighting.

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