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Shedding light and seeing stars

Starry starry night Starry starry night Andrew Whyte

When did you last see the Milky Way, that pale band which appears to arch across the night sky, formed from many billions of stars which make up our own galaxy?

In Hertfordshire this might be possible only in the most rural areas. Elsewhere in the county 'pollution' by night-time light from many sources spilling into the sky obscures it altogether.

A really dark sky helps to distinguish rural areas from urban. With light pollution steadily encroaching further into the countryside, CPRE is a leading voice among organisations trying to stop, and even reverse, this trend.

CPRE’s satellite maps, published in 1993 and 2000 showed for the first time how much light was shining up into the night sky. The data revealed that light pollution increased by 26% in England between 1993 and the year 2000.

Following CPRE’s successful decade-long campaign, along with the British Astronomical Association’s Campaign for Dark Skies, a planning policy to control lighting was introduced in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012.

CPRE’s survey of English local authorities in April 2014, ‘Shedding Light’, revealed how two Hertfordshire authorities are tackling light pollution.

Hertfordshire County Council, responsible for more than 118,000 street lights, now turns off 75% of them between midnight and 6am. The exceptions are along A roads, on some pavements and in known crime hotspots. Introduced in 2011, this policy saves nearly £1.4 million a year and achieves substantial reductions in carbon output and upward light pollution. Initial concerns that levels of crime would increase as a result of the policy seem unwarranted; none of the authorities responding to the CPRE survey experienced increases in reported crime as a result of their switch-off policies.

In the west of the county Dacorum Borough Council will, wherever feasible, consider the lighting implications of all development and road proposals, aiming to minimise new exterior lighting especially in rural areas and urban fringes.

The Northumberland National Park has achieved international status as a 'Dark Sky Place', while at the other end of England the Isle of Wight, supported by local CPRE campaigning, is aiming for a similar designation, which is valued by astronomers and helps to boost tourism. Here in Hertfordshire we are unlikely to achieve such a status, but we can still do much more to control light pollution and protect those places which still have dark skies. This includes ensuring that outside lights only shine downwards and stay turned off except when needed.

For the last four years CPRE's star count in February has revealed a continued increase in light pollution. Asked to count the stars within the constellation Orion, the percentage of participants unable to see 10 or more stars - indicating severe pollution - rose from 54% in 2013 to 59% in 2014. In the same year only 4% of participants saw more than 30 stars in Orion which indicates a truly dark sky. This was down from 5%in 2013.

CPRE is seeking funds to produce new satellite maps to reveal present-day light pollution levels, aimed especially at providing robust evidence about lighting levels in each local authority area, informing local decisions about lighting, and promoting protection of our remaining dark sky heritage.

During February, without any special equipment and even in Hertfordshire, you can see two constellations on a clear night:

The Plough or Great Bear looks like a giant saucepan. You can use it to find north. Draw an imaginary line through the side of the saucepan away from the handle: follow its line upwards until you see a very bright star. That's the Pole Star and if you stand to face it you are facing north.

Orion (the hunter) with his central belt of three stars, is a very distinctive feature in the night sky, especially from January to March. The constellation includes two of the brightest stars in the sky, Rigel and Betelgeuse. These, the belt stars and two others form an hourglass shape.

Worried about light pollution in your area? CPRE has published - 'Light pollution as a Statutory Nuisance: a 'How to' guide 

Elizabeth Hamilton, February 2015

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