Of lost and blinded Magi - Joseph Caruana

Għajnsielem council's light pollution would have blinded the Three Wise Men

Recently, the village of Għajnsielem hosted a re-enactment of the biblical story of the Three Wise Men as part of the annual Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem organised by the local council.

The story of the Magi in the Christian tradition is known to one and all: three wise men set out on a long journey, following a star that would ultimately lead them to the birthplace of Jesus. It would be quite a challenge to find anyone who hasn’t ever come across a Christmas card depicting a dazzling star in the sky with three silhouetted figures in the background, riding camels and solemnly pointing towards the beacon of light in the sky.

This familiar scene was played out again for photographs of the re-enactment, depicting actors pointing at the sky above their heads.

Little, however, does the local council seem to realise that had these stargazers truly found themselves in Għajnsielem in this day and age, they would almost certainly find themselves lost and confused, blinded as they would be by a very different kind of beacon.

At some point, this council had the stellar idea (forgive the pun) of installing two terribly-thought-out, ultra-bright LED lights to illuminate a short stretch of street and a nearby playing field in Triq il-Gudja.

Rather than installing proper lighting that does the intended job of illuminating the ground (where light is actually wanted) with minimal spillage, the council chose to affix these horizontal LED panels to two buildings across the street, right on the opposite side of the playground intended to be illuminated.

This mad solution that represents the epitome of bad lighting design has now persisted for months on end.

These light fixtures cause severe glare that results in discomfort and decreased visibility for drivers, thus decreasing road safety rather than enhancing it.

Studies have shown that a reduction in lighting levels does not imply an increase in criminal activity

It is also creating light trespass, meaning that a lot of this bright light is finding its way into people’s homes.

Finally, it is resulting in a terrible amount of skyglow, turning the night sky into a ghastly cold wash of bright white. The distant flicker of starlight has been expunged from the previously velvety sky.

The Għajnsielem council was duly in-formed of this problem way back in July 2017, and a full explanation (accompanied with schematics and photographs) was also provided. However, to date, there has been no acknowledgement of the problem whatsoever, let alone steps taken to mitigate the current pitiful situation.

Time and again, academic literature has pointed out how blue-white LED light interferes with the Circadian rhythm, having a negative effect on health, as it leads to a host of potentially serious problems.

Light pollution also impinges on the well-being and conservation of various species of wildlife, confused as they are by this unnatural light shining all night long.

Any arguments to the effect that such lighting is required for security reasons is hogwash. Badly designed lighting emanating glare actually diminishes one’s visual acuity and adversely affects the ability to distinguish objects from each other in the deep shadows that ensue.

Contrary to what one might think, studies have shown that a reduction in lighting levels does not imply an increase in criminal activity. While proper lighting aims to increase security and enhance visibility, excessive and badly designed lighting can actually lead to the opposite.

I would hope that the Għajnsielem local council draws inspiration from the very story they like to re-enact each year and do their very small part to help the public – from schoolchildren to the elderly – to appreciate the humbling beauty of the night sky while allowing them to have a proper night’s sleep with no hindrance from blinding light.

Light pollution is a reversible problem; all that is required is a will to care from those responsible, coupled with a basic sense of financial priorities. Otherwise, it is all just pageantry and theatrics.

Joseph Caruana is a lecturer, Department of Physics and Institute of Space Sciences & Astronomy, University of Malta.

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