Infrastructure & Development / Asia Wide

A rising star: Why does Asia glow so brightly?

by Gwyneth Cheng
Length 9 min

If you’ve ever gotten the chance to look out of an airplane window at night, you might have witnessed a vast landscape of glowing lights. A portrait of the tiny, interconnected lives that reside on the planet below, the sight is beautiful enough to inspire childlike awe.

Light has always been an integral part of human life. It helps us be productive, and because of that, as societies evolved human beings have kept creating ways to see in the darkness that falls upon us every twelve hours or so—from the fires of the past to the artificial lights of today.

Alas, we’ve had a poor track record with moderation, and our issue with lighting was not going to be any different. Rapid urbanisation has lit nearly every corner of our nightly surroundings in cities—but most of this light is actually redundant. In other words, many cities in the world are facing a serious case of light pollution. Our urban environments are so bright that they blind wildlife, and most light sources in cities are beacons shining at everything but nothing specific. Instead of being aimed at proper targets, the light simply gets leaked into the sky.

It’s a little comforting, then, to know that at least these lights are witnessed by airplane passengers at night.

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Earth at night. Source: NASA Earth Observatory

But Asia isn’t even that bright compared to the rest of the world…

To be fair, this is true. Asia isn’t the worst affected by light pollution by far. A glance at the world map at night tells us that this unfortunate title probably goes to Europe or the United States. Yet, it is undeniable that Asia is considerably lit nonetheless.

Why is this so? This pattern has a single overarching reason: standard of living. Whether it’s across space or time, standard of living is a strong determinant of how light polluted a place is—the higher the standard of living in an area, the brighter it is. It also explains why highly developed Europe and the United States glow brighter than rapidly developing Asia.

It’s obvious, then, that Asia still has a ways to go before we reach the pollution levels of the more developed regions. But here’s the alarming part: while the region as a whole isn’t too bright, several cities here are the most light-polluted in the world—which means they already have more redundant lighting than any city in Europe or in the United States.

Over the past few years, Hong Kong and Singapore have been vying for the brightest spot in the world. In 2013, Hong Kong shone about 1,000 times brighter than the average city across the globe. As such, it was declared the most light-polluted place in the world. But in 2016, the New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness claimed that Singapore was the most light-polluted place on Earth instead.

So, why are these two cities particularly polluted? Both are very urbanised with extensive access to electricity, and each city contains a large population residing in a relatively small space—in other words, both cities have a high population density.

This spells trouble for us. Not only is more of the region’s population getting more access to electricity across the years, but Asia also has some of the highest population densities in the world. If Hong Kong and Singapore are any indication, we are clearly still not yet prepared to cope with light pollution and—perhaps even worse—don’t seem to think of light pollution as a big issue yet.

If this carries on, we will soon become the brightest place on Earth.

Okay, that sounds bad… but why should we care?

If you’re particularly concerned about wildlife, the consequences of light pollution may be familiar to you. Unnaturally bright lights alter the lifestyles of animals active at night by affecting their biological clocks, as well as posing threats to them as they struggle to make their way through life.

Bright urban lights misguide newborn turtles to walk inland instead of out to sea, where they die of dehydration, predation, or getting crushed by traffic.

A little closer to home, however, are bird-building collisions.

You can probably guess the reason—bright lights emitted from buildings confuse birds, especially at night, and as a result they slam into these man-made structures at high speeds, getting killed on impact most of the time. As a country renowned for its gorgeous and imposing skyline, Singapore is a death trap for many of these little guys.

Many migratory birds prefer to fly at night, which often makes them the main victims of such collisions; their annual journeys across the world exhaust them and make them more vulnerable. Asia resides within the East-Asian Australasian Flyway, an area where around 600 species of birds migrate to and fro annually. With cities’ improper lighting spilling into the sky instead of being focused on structures on the ground, many of these birds become fatally vulnerable to these man-made interruptions along their flight paths.

In Singapore, some of our most gorgeous species constitute a good 53 percent of all local collisions.

Human beings aren’t let off the hook, either

All that sounds terrible for our animal friends, but they’re not the only ones in trouble. For human beings, light pollution means more than just making it harder for us to see the stars at night.

While light pollution’s human consequences aren’t as obvious as those of other types of pollution, they’re still able to affect us where it matters—biologically and behaviourally. Like those of animals, our biological clocks and the physiological processes our bodies naturally go through are confused by bright lights throughout the day and night.

On regular days, we produce more of the hormone melatonin when it’s dark and less when there’s light. With night-times getting increasingly brighter, our bodies have greatly slowed down melatonin production. Most of the human population today is experiencing the consequences of this: insomnia, fatigue, migraines, and increased stress and anxiety, among a whole lot of other health issues.

With urbanisation, more people will eventually move to brighter places—and cities themselves are likely to glow brighter. The brunt of this impact is felt by city residents.

What has Asia been doing, and what else can we do?

In short, it’s a work in progress.

Even now, solutions to light pollution are still under research, especially in Asia. In North America, where light pollution is much worse, organisations such as the International Dark Sky Association and the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America have developed a set of guidelines, called the Model Lighting Ordinance, for the planning bodies of communities to follow. Asia could soon develop its own version or use these previously developed guidelines for our urban planning needs.

As urbanisation extends its reach to more Asian cities, governing bodies can invest in proper city planning, lighting our environment just enough for it to be efficient and not too blinding. Even for more urbanised areas, simply shielding public lights—installing lamp fixtures that direct light downwards to a specific target instead of letting it spill into the sky—will do the trick.

A rising star: Why does Asia glow so brightly?

Directing light downwards to specific targets prevents over-illuminating the night sky and helps urban planners find out where too many lights are focused onto certain areas.

We can help reduce light pollution, too.

Recently, light-emitting diode (LED) lights have been all the craze. Touted as energy-efficient alternatives to traditional lighting, LEDs help households save a lot of electricity. Yet these replacements are often much brighter, which further worsens the amount of light spilling out of residential buildings. It is crucial for us to not only deploy energy-efficient lighting but also use them in moderation.

Moreover, individuals anywhere in the world can easily contribute to light pollution research efforts through the Loss of the Night mobile application, which launched in 2010. The app lets users digitally count and report how many stars they can see in the sky, an indicator of the light pollution where they are. The users remain anonymous, but the data is sent to the Globe at Night project, where the dataset is compiled and can be used for external research.

All this can be done early, and we have the advantage of time, for now. What’s important today is for us to realise that light pollution is a serious yet easily avoidable problem—a modern trap that can have severe consequences for human and animal bodies if we do not deal with it in time.