See the Stars – Considering Light Pollution in Oakland

Posted on behalf of Eric Saltmarsh, KOB Board Member

“If the stars should appear, but one night every thousand years, how man would marvel and stare.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Have you ever been in the country on a clear, moonless night? If you have, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a beautiful and unforgettable sight. Thousands of stars are sprinkled across the sky like powder. The Milky Way glows. When I gaze at these dark skies, the immensity of our universe humbles me and fills me with awe.

Why can’t we see all those stars on a clear, moonless night from Oakland? It’s largely because Oakland is a city that uses a lot of lights, surrounded by other densely populated cities that do likewise. Light pollution in the Bay Area significantly hampers our ability to see many of the stars that are plainly visible from other, darker locales.

Light pollution is one of the fastest growing forms of pollution, but it escapes a lot of attention. Why should we care about light pollution? For one thing, there is increased evidence that artificial lights at night can be harmful to our health by disrupting our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour pattern of being awake during the day and asleep at night) as well as our immune system. Artificial light at night has also been shown to affect plant and wildlife health. And, obviously, it masks the beauty and majesty of the night sky.

Let’s also consider the significant economic and environmental impact of light pollution. The Dark-Sky Association in Tucson, Arizona, estimates that one-third of all lighting in the U.S. is wasted, at an annual cost of about 30 million barrels of oil and 8.2 million tons of coal. That translates into economic waste of $2 billion, every year, and that’s just in our country.

From an environmental perspective, this wasted energy in the U.S. generates unnecessary emission into our atmosphere of 14.1 million tons of carbon dioxide (that’s 28,200,000,000 pounds – to put that number into context, it’s the weight-equivalent of more than 33,000 fully-loaded Boeing 747 jumbojets. If these jumbojets were parked nose to tail, they would stretch from Oakland, all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska!). Increasing amounts of carbon dioxide contribute to global warming. While artificial light may seem relatively harmless, the resources that produce it are not.

As the satellite photo below demonstrates, the Bay Area produces a lot of light at night. While Oakland is a major contributor to light pollution, it is clearly not alone in this regard! Major areas of light pollution in Oakland include (but are not limited to) the downtown area and the Port of Oakland (also shown in the second photo).

Oakland at night

The Bay Area at night


Port of Oakland

The Port of Oakland


There’s no question that we need light at night to help us to see clearly and to provide us with a sense of safety and security. However, the light we use does not need to be excessive.

We can reduce light pollution without compromising our need to see and be safe by:

  • Using energy-efficient lighting, lower wattage, and dimmers. There are companies that specialize in night sky-friendly outdoor lighting that can provide you with the lighting you need.
  • Placing motion detectors on outdoor lights, so lights are turned on when someone is in the area, but go off when there’s nobody around and the light’s not needed.
  • Using shielded light fixtures that direct the light down, while blocking the light from shining horizontally and up into the sky. The lights on the new east section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge are a good example of how lights can be more efficient, properly aimed, and shielded.
  • Educating ourselves, our children, our neighbors, and local business leaders about the negative effects of light pollution.
  • Turning off unnecessary lights. By simply shutting off lights that you don’t need, you will save money on your utilities bill, put less strain on our region’s power resources, and allow us all to see the stars a little more clearly.

Every little bit helps. If each of us can make some minor modifications in our lives, to limit our use of light at night, we will soon find ourselves viewing stars in the night skies of Oakland that we’d never seen from here.

Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.

We encourage you to share your thoughts in the reply section. We welcome the dialogue and learning of others’ perspectives.

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