Waawaatesi: That’s the Ojibwe name for firefly. It has to do with a flickering light. I live with the fireflies. They seem to be in abundance now, more than ever. Magical sparkles in the night, the edge of the prairie, the edge of the bush. That’s where they live.
A lot of people, I realize, don’t ever get to see a firefly. Scientifically, they are luminescent beetles which fly in the night, lighting up for an instant in a breathtaking spectacle of sparkles in only the darkest of nights.
There are all sorts of fireflies, and they are magical. It turns out, however, that they are threatened by something called light pollution. I never really thought about this. This is how it works: Outdoor lights prevent fireflies from seeing each other’s flashes. Thus, they have a hard time finding mates. The other stuff that is a problem for fireflies, is the usual: habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. So, maybe this is my case for fireflies forever.
Now, this may seem like an inconsequential insect, but they tell us something about our world and how it’s getting lighter all the time. And, what is not good for the firefly is probably not good for us either. That’s a strange thought, after all this rural electrification and street lighting. But maybe enough is enough, and we should revisit the benefit of the darkness.
Here’s the story. Turns out that there is an organization and thousands of communities working on keeping things dark: the International Dark Sky Association. It’s been around since 1988, and seeks to encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education. The goal is to turn the lights out, or at least down.
What’s the big deal? Think of it this way, your ancestors navigated by the stars, and today most people won’t walk outside without a GPS. That’s a crazy loss of direction or skill at some level for sure. And while Indigenous peoples and many rural peoples can still see the stars, most of the world’s population cannot. That’s particularly an urban thing, where there’s all this light. From my farm, through the open skies, at night I can see the glow of Detroit Lakes, and that’s 25 miles away
It turns out that being dark part of the time is a good idea for animals, and for ourselves. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. As the Dark Skies Program explains on their website, "Experiencing the night sky provides perspective, inspiration, and leads us to reflect on our humanity and place in the universe. The history of scientific discovery and even human curiosity itself is indebted to the natural night sky.” More than that, it’s healthy to be in darkness.
Some like it dark
Nocturnal animals sleep during the day and are active at night. Light pollution radically alters their world by turning night into day. Christopher Kyba is researcher who studies nocturnal animals. He notes, “the introduction of artificial light probably represents the most drastic change human beings have made to their environment.”
“Predators use light to hunt, and prey species use darkness as cover,” Kyba explains “Near cities, cloudy skies are now hundreds, or even thousands of times brighter than they were 200 years ago. We are only beginning to learn what a drastic effect this has had on nocturnal ecology.”
It’s not just owls. It’s things like frogs, who make it their business to croak at night, particularly when mating. Artificial lights disrupt their mojo and that means less frogs and reduced populations. Sea turtle babies get confused, and migrating birds get confused when they fly with the stars.
Every year millions of birds die colliding with needlessly illuminated buildings and towers. Migratory birds depend on cues from properly timed seasonal schedules. Artificial lights can cause them to migrate too early or too late and miss ideal climate conditions for nesting, foraging and other behaviors. Now it’s getting complicated.
While we are busy getting brighter and brighter screens, staying up all night, and thinking we are invincible, it turns out that we are supposed to be asleep in the dark times, just like your grandmother used to tell you. It turns out that, humans evolved to the rhythms of the natural light-dark cycle of day and night called circadian rhythm. The spread of artificial lighting means most of us no longer experience truly dark nights. That, according to researchers, can negatively affect human health, increasing risks for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, breast cancer and more. Humans are not nocturnal creatures by design, despite what your teenager will tell you.
Melatonin is the hormone created in response to the circadian rhythm. Melatonin helps keep us healthy. It has antioxidant properties, induces sleep, boosts the immune system, lowers cholesterol, and helps the functioning of the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, testes and adrenal glands. Nighttime exposure to artificial light suppresses melatonin production. We usually go buy a pill for that, but it turns out that, just hit the light, and you can be healthier.
For me, I’m going to hit the sack. Way past my bedtime as it is, and I’m going to see how dark it gets. It is the longest day of the year, after all.
And, I am going to welcome the darkness.