Light Pollution Is Stealing Our Skies

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
April 23 2014 7:30 AM

Black Skies, Smiling at Me

Milky Way meteor
A meteor flashes across the sky; one of the few kinds of nighttime illumination of which I approve.

Photo by Mark Gee, used by permission

This week, April 20–26, 2014, is International Dark Sky Week, a global effort to get people to appreciate the skies above them. Light pollution—excess light thrown into the sky by street lights, houses, buildings, and pretty much everything that makes light—reduces our ability to see the stars, sometimes dramatically. I lived in Chicago for a year, and on the clearest nights I could only see the very few brightest stars, struggling against the mighty orange glow of the city projected upward.

This light is wasted; it’s money thrown away, it’s low-efficiency, and in many cases the lights being used at night aren’t really doing a good job of illuminating the ground and making it safer.

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Astrophotographer Mark Gee (who has been featured on my blog before; see Related Posts below) made a short and lovely video to highlight the issue. His work is stunning and well worth your time.

Years ago, my wife and I took a weekend vacation to a campground in rural Virginia; it was a camp I attended a couple of times as a kid. The owners were family friends, and one weekend every year they had old friends over to spend time together and enjoy the gorgeous scenery.

We parked near the main house, and as we fussed inside the car getting our belongings together, another weekend-goer walked by us while he talked on his phone. We overhead one snippet of his conversation, where he said “… and you should see the sky at night here. It’s so dark, and there are thousands of stars!”

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

I turned to my wife and we smiled at each other. He had no idea an astronomer was sitting there and could hear him; that was a spontaneous exclamation from someone who simply had never seen a dark sky before, and was properly overwhelmed by it.

That night we all sat in a field and watched the brilliant stars sparkling in a field of velvety black. It truly was amazing, mesmerizing, surpassingly beautiful. The artwork of nature, displayed for all to see …

… who have the skies to see it. This experience is what light pollution is stealing from us, and this is why I support what the International Dark Sky Association is doing to raise awareness of it. They have a different theme every day this week talking about our brightening skies, and I encourage you to take a look to see what they’re doing about it. The sky belongs to all of us, and we all deserve a chance to see it.

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