This post is also available in: German
When an earthquake jostled awake Los Angeles in 1994 and knocked out the power across the city, people ran outside and when they saw the night sky, some of them anxiously called emergency services and observatories, wondering about the unfamiliar, silvery cloud hovering in the sky. It was the Milky Way of course, a sight that had been common for our grandparents, but had since been covered up by the urban glow.
How did our own galaxy become so unfamiliar that people now think it is some alien menace?
The star filled night sky is something that most modern people have slowly lost ever since Edison’s light bulbs lit up that first street in New York. No matter where you live in the world, be it a big metropolis or a small mountain village, street lamps have replaced the tentative and once sufficient glow of the moon and roads sprawl their lit up tentacles across the world, connecting megacities, urban areas and small towns alike. Vast areas of the planet have turned into a glaring grid during the night, claiming to provide more safety for drivers as well as pedestrians feeling uneasy in the pitch black darkness, but it’s also offices and stores that leave their lights on and the neon advertisements proclaiming their messages at all times of day and night. As night turns into an artificial day and the world is ablaze in light and activity, we have slowly lost the beauty of the stars. One study even claims that two thirds of Earth’s population cannot see the Milky Way any more.
Attending the Dark Sky Festival in Jasper
A similar question was asked at the Dark Sky Festival in Jasper: How many children growing up in cities these days have never seen the Milky Way? It probably has no concrete answer, but it got me thinking. During much of my life I lived in Central Europe, in an area where over the past few decades once small villages have grown together into endless suburban sprawls. Growing up, I watched Star Wars until I could recite it by heart, but I was never far enough away from street lights, traffic and houses to be able to see more than a few dots in the sky myself.
Recently, I visited Mongolia’s remote Gobi Desert, where only a handful of nomads have set up camp with their camels and goats and the nights are still truly dark. But the truth is that dark skies don’t have to be limited to barely populated areas half a world away. Jasper National Park for example is the world’s second largest dark sky preserve, all while being only four hours away from the big cities Calgary and Edmonton and being a big tourism destination with a busy town itself. Here, the night sky is protected.
I travelled to Jasper to see darkness just like I did back in Mongolia and was not disappointed. When the cloud cover let up for a few hours, I glimpsed the stars shining almost as brightly as they do in those far away grasslands. But the event had other highlights as well and from Christ Hadfield speaking about his experiences off the planet to Jay Ingram giving hilarious commentary to old Sci-Fi movies and kids firing off rockets, the Dark Sky Festival was, although quite snowy, a big success. Astronomers from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada were always on hand to help with telescopes and finding the perfect view and employees of Parks Canada were informing about the importance of a natural lack of lighting and how the town of Jasper has been busy replacing old street lights.
“Admit it, this is photoshopped!”
As former Astronaut Chris Hadfield said at the Dark Sky Festival, big parts of the planet are still completely dark, first and foremost the pitch black oceans, but also the less populated continents. Now, years after living on the brightly lit up grid of Central Europe, I have traveled to some of the remaining refuges of the night sky, places so remote that they are still safe from the sprawl of urbanization and light pollution. There, I have made my own attempts at photographing the night sky. While reactions to the photos I shared have been overwhelmingly positive, I noticed a trend in the comments I received proclaiming either utter amazement or total disbelief.
Spectacular, sensational, magical was the general gist of it. But some were sure, that it simply had to be photoshopped and I received quite a few comments telling me to admit to my deceiving ways already.
I feel like everyone should be able to go outside and see the milky way spilling across the sky, just the way I show it in my photos. People should see the nebulas curling their way around the stars and be able to pick out the constellations. Seeing the milky way shouldn’t be a once in a lifetime event or something you see popping up on the internet and think is edited beyond recognition.
So, what happens when light turns into pollution?
Studies have found light pollution to have impacts on our health ranging from insomnia to breast cancer. But not only humans are affected by the growing light pollution, the disappearance of the stars also has disastrous effects on nocturnal organisms, such as many birds who orient themselves via these dots in the sky. Thousands of migratory birds who are used to navigating by starlight get confused by the brightly lit cities every day and crash into the towering buildings, breaking their necks. Just hatched sea turtles can’t find their way into the sea any more and the behavioural patterns of nocturnal animals across the band are permanently altered.
Light pollution is not only totally unnecessary and unhealthy, but also extremely expensive. The International Dark-Sky Association in Tucson, Arizona for example has calculated that the United States wastes 2 billion dollars every year on unnecessary lighting.
We may have lost the ability to see the magic that is out there for the moment, but there is still hope of reclaiming the night sky. Reducing light pollution starts with you! Turn off porch lights and maybe install dimmers in your home. Turn the lights off when you leave your office and become active about the issue in your community. And, if you are ever in the area, attend a Dark Sky Festival in Jasper and see the difference you can make for yourself.