While Honolulu residents may marvel at the brilliant glow of the city’s night skyline, it’s not a welcome sight for astronomers atop Haleakala. For them, it’s light pollution that’s interfering with their scientific studies.
Oahu’s glaring park and stadium lights, and abundant street lamps are also causing other problems. For birds and sea turtles, they can be a deathtrap.
“There is some egregiously bad lighting on this island,” said Richard Wainscoat, chair of the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Astronomy.
The problem of light pollution has taken on enough weight that in 2009, state lawmakers created a task force to combat it.
Led by Wainscoat, the state’s Starlight Reserve Committee has been working for two years to curb the state’s lighting issues. But it’s unlikely that the work of the 14-member committee will have much of an impact anytime soon if the city of Honolulu doesn’t step up and help, scientists say. Honolulu’s efforts have trailed those of the state’s other counties, and as the glow from the city gets brighter, scientists fret.
“It’s been ramping up over the past decade,” said Jim Crisafulli, director of the state’s Office of Aerospace Development and a member of the committee. “Our concern is that if we don’t do something about it now, it could get even worse.”
In addition to the problems it can cause for astronomers, lighting can harm native animals and even human health.
Lighting near shorelines can disorient sea turtles who traditionally rely on moonlight to come ashore and lay eggs. And it can confuse birds to the point of exhaustion.
“The birds fly around and around and around the lights until they get too tired and collapse and die,” Wainscoat said. They can also collapse and be eaten by predators or slam into buildings or poles because they are disoriented, he said.
A growing body of scientific evidence has also linked artificial lighting to disruptions in people’s circadian rhythms and even cancer, in the case of blue-rich lighting, according to Wainscoat.
Last year, the Starlight Reserve Committee crafted legislation that could have had far-reaching impacts on combatting light pollution. Introduced by Sen. Will Espero, it required all new outdoor lighting and replacement lighting to have shields that would block light from shining upwards. The statewide proposal would have applied to all bulbs — state, county and private lighting.
While it passed the Legislature, Gov. Neil Abercrombie rejected the measure because it lacked funding and didn’t have an implementation plan, according to Donalyn Dela Cruz, spokeswoman for the governor. She said the administration was working on “consensus legislation” this year to address the concern. Wainscoat said the bill also had problems when it came to state versus county jurisdiction.
“It’s unfortunate that the governor vetoed it,” said Espero. “It’s definitely a bill that should have passed.”
The committee is trying again, though this time it has scaled-back the legislation to include only state facilities – namely highways and schools. Honolulu isn’t included, meaning that parks and city street lamps would be unfettered.
“I think it would make only a small impact on this island,” said Wainscoat, noting that Honolulu needed to play a bigger role.
Oahu isn’t the only culprit when it comes to nighttime light pollution, but it’s by far the worst. Both the Big Island and Maui County have passed ordinances that control outdoor lighting and Kauai has aggressive rules in place, in large part because of its many endangered birds.
During fledgling season, from mid-September to mid-December, Kauai doesn’t turn on county building and park lights, said county spokeswoman Beth Tokioka. The electric utility has also shielded thousands of streetlights. And the problem of endangered birds has limited stadium lighting for football games.
Wainscoat said he was disappointed that Oahu hasn’t put more effort into the commission.
Gerald Hamada, who represents the island on the Starlight Reserve Committee, has missed half of the meetings, according to the committee’s minutes.
Hamada said that if there was nothing on the agenda that had to do with Honolulu, he didn’t attend.
“They are talking about issues with astronomy and things like that that don’t pertain to us,” said Hamada, who is the chief of the city’s Mechanical Electrical Division, under the Department of Design and Construction.
But that hasn’t stopped county representatives from Kauai, Maui and the Big Island from making the trek over to Oahu for the meetings, or calling in via teleconference.
Hamada said that the city has to follow rules that ensure lights are bright enough and that the city has been using flat lenses to minimize the amount of light going directly into the sky.
Louise Kim McCoy, Mayor Peter Carlisle’s press secretary, said that the city is reviewing the legislation proposed by the committee. She added that the city had done a number of energy retrofits at public buildings and parking lots to reduce energy consumption.
However, the energy-efficient LED lighting that the city is using contributes to the problem. The blue-rich lighting is the most damaging when it comes to light pollution, scientists say.
Miles Kubo, the chief operating officer of Energy Industries, a company that specializes in energy efficiency, said that the best policy was to make sure that outdoor lights were shielded while also using energy efficiency lighting in order to decrease both light pollution and electricity use.
If Oahu doesn’t get a handle on its light pollution, scientists worry that the view through their telescopes on Haleakala will get worse, and that the glow could even begin to affect Mauna Kea.
“If [light pollution] grows unchecked, eventually it will become too hard,” Wainscoat said of the work the astronomers are doing.
And then there are the drawbacks for the general population.
“There’s this whole generation of people growing up without seeing the Milky Way,” he said.
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues