Friday, 30 May 2014

LED lighting's dark side

New LED street lighting being installed by councils throughout the country to save money and cut carbon emissions could mean more sleepless nights and ultimately be bad for our health.

A study by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) says some eco-friendly low-energy LED (light emitting diode) street lighting creates unnecessary glare and might have serious effects on people’s well-being.

Light pollution expert Martin Morgan-Taylor has called for more research into which wavelengths, levels and durations of lighting pose health threats - and how this compares with modern lighting practices.

The lecturer - from Leicester’s De Montfort University - says medical research is increasingly linking LED lighting with more serious health issues such as cancer and depression.

"Artificial lighting is known to have negative effects on human health and well-being if sleep is disrupted by bright light shining into bedroom windows," he said.

"What we know is that ‘white’ or ‘blue-rich’ lighting - which mimics natural daylight - is being increasingly used at night.

"This type of light suppresses the production of a circadian rhythm hormone called melatonin, which is believed to be a powerful anti-oxidant that helps to ward off some cancers," he said.

The CPRE report, ‘Shedding Light – a survey of local authority approaches to lighting in England’ is the first piece of research to ask councils how they control light pollution.

Councils are urged to give ‘careful consideration’ to the type of LED lighting they use and weigh the potential impacts that higher temperature blue-rich lighting has on ecology and human health.

The report says authorities across England could be doing more to reduce the impact of light pollution and be saving hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in the process by using dimming schemes.

It also urges councils to preserve dark skies by having a ‘presumption against’ new lighting in existing dark areas and preventing ‘inappropriate and badly designed development’ that masks views of the night sky.

But according to the survey of 83 local authorities fewer than two thirds of councils in England are actively seeking to minimise the impact of bad lighting - despite recent changes to planning laws which encourage them to do so.

The CPRE also recommends new street lighting should be tested ‘in situ’ before schemes are rolled out across wider areas to ensure that it is the minimum required for the task and does not cause a nuisance to residents.

Street lighting in England costs councils around £616m a year and can account for up to 30% of their carbon emissions.

The CPRE study reveals that despite the number of people living with severe light pollution around the country growing more than a third of councils have no formal policy in place.

Almost half of councils responding said they were involved in dimming street lights in their areas and a third say they are now switching off street lights - typically between midnight and 5am.

The research found dimming schemes are significantly more popular with residents than switch off schemes - with 68 per cent of respondents saying local communities had been very supportive.

Some council schemes to replace old-style sodium ‘orange’ street lighting with new LED lamps have attracted criticism from nearby residents.

Last month people in a west London borough complained that new LED street lamps were so bright they were no longer getting a good night's sleep.

Hounslow council started using the lights as part of a multi-million pound improvement scheme but people living close to the new LED lighting described it is ‘like living on a floodlit soccer pitch’.

Elsewhere, Leicester city council is updating 32,000 of its 37,000 street lights as part of a commitment to reduce the council's carbon footprint by 50% before 2025.

The three year £13.9m project began in March 2013 and will contribute an estimated saving of 5,350 tonnes of carbon emissions per annum.

It includes a Central Management System (CMS) for remote control of lighting levels in specific areas, allowing dimmed lighting, for example, in the early hours before dawn.

The council says replacing its existing stock with LED lighting will reduce energy usage and carbon emissions by over 40% compared with current levels, saving electricity charges (at 2013 prices) of £0.84m a year.

Using a CMS should provide a further 17% reduction, increasing the overall savings to 57% of current energy usage and carbon emissions, and slashing a total of £1.2m off its annual electricity bill.

Aerial view of Leicester city centre at night clearly showing the streets
where new white LED lighting has already been installed.

Other councils are, however, taking a more cautious route. In Essex, the streets have been equipped with one of the world’s largest wireless street lighting control systems.

Around 125,000 of the county’s street lights have been wirelessly linked, allowing centralised control and fault detection.

The council expects to reduce the energy cost of street lighting by around £1.3 million per year and to cut annual carbon emissions by over 8,000 tons.

Earlier this year Trafford council in Manchester delayed its £9.3m scheme to replace all its 27,000 street lights after a resident threatened High Court action.

Simon Nicholas, a chartered engineer and businessman, raised concerns that new LED lighting had the potential to cause health problems.

"We're breaking new ground here and new evidence is emerging all the time," he said. "The council has not fully taken these studies into account."

Mr Nicholas claimed some councils are not looking at the bigger picture ."LEDs are currently on an exponential curve in terms of development," he said.

"In five years’ time we may well have really good LED street lights. Anyone charging in now is making a huge mistake."

Emma Marrington, CPRE Dark Skies campaigner and author of the ‘Shedding Light’ report, said: "Many local authorities are taking steps in the right direction but much more can be done.

"We urge councils to do more to control lighting in their areas and ensure that the right lighting is used only where and when it is needed."

She said the research had revealed no evidence to support the fear that adjusting or dimming street lights impacted on public safety.

"We're not advocating changes where they're not appropriate - but why shine bright lights on residential streets, quiet roads and open countryside throughout the night when it's not needed?

"Genuine dark starry nights are becoming harder and harder to find which is why councils should take action to control it now. Light pollution blurs the distinction between town and country, ruins the countryside's tranquil character and denies us the experience of a truly starry sky."

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission
enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Turning up the heat

One day in the future the Wash will extend inland as far as the cities of Peterborough and Cambridge. That means much of the Fens - including the market town of Spalding where the Lighthouse Keeper currently resides - will be under water.

And, if as expected, sea levels rise significantly the story will be repeated throughout the country - not to mention key cities and settlements around the world.

On the English south coast, the naval bases of Portsmouth and Plymouth will largely disappear. Further north, Hull will be lost, as will much of south Yorkshire.

Middlesbrough would succumb to the waves and, in the northwest, Chester would be flooded. In the east, rising sea levels will eventually claim Felixstowe, Southend and Great Yarmouth.

Around London, the Thames estuary would probably expand to three or four times its current breadth, eliminating most of Dagenham, Stratford and Ilford in the process.

And, unless huge flood defences that dwarf the current barriers are created, the whole of central London would become very seriously water-logged.

But we have to be honest. Despite the mounting evidence are we capable of mitigating such an impending disaster?

Part of the problem is that the world’s own climate disaster movie will be years in the making and is set for release only on an indeterminable date in the future - a distant event horizon.

The worst effects of climate change and global warming for most of us may be perhaps still some 50, 100 or 150 years hence.

But what we don’t know is whether this estimated timescale is fixed. Or will significant trigger points - like the melting of polar ice - have an exponential and accelerating effect?

If the recent European elections are anything to go by climate change, energy policy and the environment will likely disappear into the murky background of science denial and fear in Europe of far-right politicians before the UK’s national elections next spring.

Earlier this year, amid growing warnings about a potential link between global warming and extreme UK weather, Ed Davey, the energy secretary, raised concerns that political consensus about the need to tackle climate change was in danger of breaking down.

He said that the actions of climate deniers - and those in the Conservative and UKIP parties who try to discredit the science - is "undermining public trust in the scientific evidence for climate change".

Criticising those who seize on "any anomaly in the climate data to attempt to discredit the whole", Mr Davey added that "we can see around us today the possible consequences of a world in which extreme weather events are much more likely".

A joint report this spring from the UK Met Office and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, entitled ‘The Recent Storms and Floods in the UK’, points out that the 12cm rise in sea level over the 20th century has already exacerbated coastal flooding.

It goes on to say that a further rise of between 11cm and 16cm is expected by 2030, two-thirds of which is attributable to the effects of climate change.

Last month scientists at a NASA conference announced they had collected enough observations to conclude that the retreat of ice in the Amundsen sea sector of West Antarctica was unstoppable.

Its disappearance will likely trigger the future collapse of the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet - which brings with it a global sea level rise of between three and five metres.

Eventually, rising sea levels will displace millions of people worldwide and one headline in a US magazine reporting the NASA conference ran the headline - ‘This Is What a Holy Shit Moment for Global Warming Looks Like’.

For those who have seen the recent film ‘Noah’ starring Russell Crowe, based on the story of a Biblical flood, there might be parallels to be drawn.

"For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away."                           Matthew 24:38-39

Like the people of Noah’s time, we remain wilfully oblivious to the looming human ecological catastrophe.

Are we prepared to accept huge changes in living standards merely to limit - rather than halt - the rise in temperatures and ensuing problems?

And where capitalism rules, can anyone persuade our politicians to put the future ahead of the present, apart from in a sound bite?

Sometimes the task ahead feels as hopeless as arguing against growing old. This is, indeed, a ‘holy shit’ moment for the world and it seems like something of a miracle is needed.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission
enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

You are what you sleep

Margaret Thatcher was once famous for promoting the adage that she could thrive and work effectively on only a few hours sleep per night.

And, though there are exceptions to every rule, for the large majority of us it is not the same - we ignore sleep at our peril.

A report today for the BBC's ‘Day of the Body Clock’ asserts that society has become ‘supremely arrogant’ in ignoring the importance of sleep.

Leading researchers from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Manchester and Surrey universities have warned that cutting back on sleep is leading to serious health problems.

Scientists have warned that our modern life and 24 hour society mean many people are now ‘living against’ their body clocks with damaging consequences for health and well-being.

We all know that lack of regular sleep can affect our mood, vitality and energy levels. But cancer, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, infections and obesity have also all been linked to reduced sleep.

Prof Russell Foster, from the University of Oxford, told the BBC that people are now getting on average between one and two hours less sleep a night than 60 years ago.

"We are the supremely arrogant species because we feel we can ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle,” he said.

“What we do as a species, perhaps uniquely, is override the clock. And long-term acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems.”

Regular readers of ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ will know that the natural rhythms of life, and of light and darkness, have been discussed at frequent intervals.

Harvard University’s Prof Charles Czeisler confirmed that light is the “most  powerful synchroniser” of our internal biological clocks.

He said energy efficient light bulbs as well as TVs, smart phones, tablets and computers had high levels of light in the blue end of the spectrum, which is "right in the sweet spot" for disrupting the body clock.

“Light exposure, especially short wavelength blue-ish light in the evening, will reset our circadian rhythms to a later hour, postponing the release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin and making it more difficult for us to get up in the morning.

“It’s a big concern that we're being exposed to much more light, sleeping less and, as a consequence, may suffer from many chronic diseases.”

In ‘Blinded by the night’ I noted that an increasing number of scientific studies were questioning the long-held premise that humans are largely immune to the effects of artificial light at night.

Today, or to be correct, tonight, we have levels of light hundreds and thousands of time higher than the natural level during the night – and light pollution is currently rising by a general average of 20 percent a year.

What is happening in the streets outside our homes is not always within our control. But we can take more personal responsibility when it comes to the light behind closed doors.

In his book ‘A Great Day at the Office’, Dr John Briffa discusses sleep as one of the strategies to help maximise our energy and performance levels.

“Light exposure in the day promotes better sleep but it may have the reserve effect late in the evening,” he says.

“In one study, light exposure from room lighting was found to delay meltonin exposure by about 90 minutes. Turning room lighting down, or perhaps off altogether (and using dimly lit lamps) during the evening may help sleep.”

I covered the topic of how excessive light at night affect our sleep and health more extensively in ‘Early morning birdsong’.

If you don’t sleep too well at night then it is probably a good idea, according to Dr Briffa, to be mindful of the potential impact of evening light levels on sleep.

TVs, laptops, tablets and smart phones - with their blue-rich light - can all suppress melatonin function too so avoiding the use of these within a couple of hours of bedtime may be a helpful - though impossibly hard - tactic to implement.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission
enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

Friday, 9 May 2014

Astronaut's view of Earth

The world’s biggest and most spectacular reality show is now available on a laptop, tablet or TV screen near you.

Live pictures from Earth orbit can now be viewed by anyone with an internet connection thanks to NASA’s latest experiment on the International Space Station (ISS).

The High Definition Earth Viewing Experiment (HDEV) started its round-the-clock broadcasts on 30 April and will stream video of Earth from the orbiting Space Station until October 2015.

Footage of Earth is captured by four cameras attached to the outside of the ISS as part of an experiment to evaluate whether commercially available cameras can survive the harsh conditions of space, particularly high levels of radiation.

The cameras - enclosed in a pressurised box containing dry nitrogen to mimic atmospheric pressure on Earth - are mounted on the External Payload Facility of ESA’s Columbus module.

NASA hopes it will be able to use similar, commercially available HD video cameras on future space missions as this will likely be more cost-effective than designing new products.

Video from these cameras is transmitted back to Earth and then streamed live on this ustream tv link - with views typically sequencing though the different cameras.

Viewers should also be aware that this is real space so there is no sound (in space no one can hear you scream) and there are a few quirks to be aware of (please do no adjust your set).

Between camera switches, a grey and then black colour slate briefly appears and, since the ISS is in darkness during part of each orbit, pictures at those times will be dark.

Also, during periods of loss of signal with the ground, or when HDEV is not operating, a grey colour slate or previously recorded video may be seen.

And remember, because the Space Station orbits Earth every 90 minutes there is a sunrise or sunset every 40 minutes.

Analysis of this experiment will be conducted to assess the effects of the space environment on the equipment and video quality which may help decisions about cameras for future missions.

For your own astronaut’s view of Earth plus a display of the real time ISS location, click this link -