Reclaiming the Night: Efforts to get back the stars at night
For those that live in urban areas, the night sky is dark and quiet. If you look real hard, you may see a handful of stars. So what’s with all these photos of billions and billions (shout-out to the legendary Carl Sagan) of stars? Often a huge swath of gas and dust matching a spiraling arm of the Milky Way?
Light pollution. Streetlights, security lights, lit buildings, automobiles, and the like wash away everything but the brightests stars from the night sky in populated areas, turning it into a hazy-dark purple-gray dome over the night. And estimates suggest that almost 80 percent of North Americans can’t see the Milky Way from their homes.
“Before we devised artificial lights and atmospheric polluion and modern forms of nocturnal entertainment we watched the stars,” Sagan wrote in Pale Blue Dot in 1994, two years before his death.
The further you travel from cities, the more of the spectacularly starry night sky is revealed. Lower light pollution rates allow the human eye to caputure the stars making up the structure of a spiral arm of the Milky Way and even far-off galaxies and nebulae. It’s possible to see the Andromeda Galaxy — 2.5 million light years from Earth — without a telescope. But not in urban centers.
That’s where organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA) comes into action. “Less than 100 years ago, everyone could look up and see a spectacular starry night sky. Now, millions of children across the globe will never experience the Milky Way where they live,” the association writes.
In Idaho, the Idaho Conservation League has been working with state and local governments to establish the Dark Sky Reserve. Pending approval from IDSA, the designation would recognize the reserve’s clear skies and low light pollition, “possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment.”
The League has been working with central Idaho communities for more than two years on the reserve, which would encompass approximately 900,000 acres — mostly public land owned by the U.S. Forest Reserve. Critical in the reserve’s success is the designation of communities within its boundaries — towns like Ketchum and Sun Valley — committing to minimize their own light pollution. (Several already have light pollution ordinances in place.)
“When we lose the night sky, we lose a piece of ourselves,” said Dani Mazzotta of the Idaho Conservation League. “Being able to look into the cosmos, look past the earth, look into the heavens, that is a really strong, profound experience.”
What if you’re not travelling to Idaho to gaze at the night sky? First, check the Light Pollution Map for areas closeby that may have less light pollution around you, letting you at least see more of the stars. And the association suggests three tasks anyone can do to help combat light pollution at night:
- Identify if your community has an outdoor lighting ordinance
- Ensure the lighting ordinance is enforced, and
- Advocate for an ordinance if one is not on the books