Max Jansen: Utah needs to do a better job of controlling light pollution

Too much light at night is harmful to both humans and animals.

(Photo by Max Jansen) A view overlooking Salt Lake City

As I crawl out of the sleeping bag and poke my head out of the tent, I think the sun is just setting. However, when I look down at my watch, I realize it’s 1 a.m.

Light pollution in Utah and across the world has become an increasing problem over the past decades because of the poor infrastructure that we have built in our cities. This pollution messes up the circadian rhythm and sleep cycles of both humans and animals.

The first reason why light pollution is happening in Utah and across the county is how street lights often shine more than just down at the road, shooting up into the sky as well with a full circle of light. This creates the problem of excess light put out into the night rather than just on the ground where the light needs to be to make streets safer.

The second problem with the infrastructure is decorative lights scattered around the Salt Lake area. Lights on billboards, on top of high-rises, so on and so forth, add to the extra light flowing out of the city.

The third problem is people leaving their lights on when they don’t need to. While your dad might get mad at you for running up the utility bill, there is also another reason to turn off the lights, the pollution it causes. The excess of landscape lighting around Salt Lake also contributes to the problem. While proper landscape lighting can help improve home security and safety around the house, 30% of landscape lighting is wasted and poorly aimed. This accounts for about $3 billion of wasted energy across the entire United States.

This excess light coming from our urban areas does more than just look pretty on a map as there are many downsides to us and animals. As humans, we have a circadian rhythm, a biological clock that is dictated by the day and night cycle. When there is constant light and no clear night, it is hard to have our bodies produce the proper melatonin we need for sleep. This can increase stress levels, weaken immune systems and cause higher obesity rates, just to name a few of the problems.

Wild animals are also susceptible to too much light in the environment. Nocturnal hunters suffer because their prey can now see better and might be awake at this time, diurnal creatures (animals that are awake during the day) might not get enough sleep because they would not know if the sun is up or not, similar to humans.

Beyond the medical harms, there is also something about light pollution that feels unnatural. With people constantly surrounded by phones, social media and artificial living environments, it is becoming harder and harder to escape the society we built around ourselves. A quick trip to the mountains for a night to just get away from everything becomes harder when you always see your problems shining through all night.

Don’t lose hope as the solutions to fixing light pollution are quite simple and there have already been efforts to conserve the darkness. It starts with the simple things, starting to turn off your lights when you leave a room and double-checking where your outdoor lighting is pointing.

And, moving up the scale of complexity, you can write a letter to your local elected officials telling them to change the lighting in your neighborhood or email some businesses suggesting what lights they could take off their building to be more friendly on the eyes.

Utah has taken a strong step in the right direction by designating up to 10 dark zones in 2023, surpassing any other state in its effort to keep the state and county as dark as possible. While these improvements are substantial with the current growth of cities in Utah these zones are soon going to be infringed upon so it remains beneficial to be vigilant.

Max Jansen

Max Jansen is a sophomore at Rowland Hall Upper School, Salt Lake City.