The Damnably Bright Sky

Last night I took part in the survey on light pollution, conducted by Globe at Night. I will not rehash here the facts on light pollution which you can read directly on the above website (and in many other places), but taking part in the survey got me thinking about my experiences looking at the stars over the course of my life.

I lived my entire life in two large cities – first Moscow and then New York City. Of course the state of Moscow skies was as bad as it is here in New York, but back in Russia I had the opportunity to get out of the city for a few weeks in the summer, and during these trips I got glimpses of the night sky that I did not get in my urban existence. Back then I was not able to recognize any constellations beyond the Big and the Little Dipper, but I did know about the Milky Way, and getting to see it was a real treat.

Flash forward to the United States. Living in the city you cannot get out of the glare of the street lights. The rooftops are mostly off-limits, and even if you can get to the roof, there’s enough ambient light to drown out all but the brightest stars. When our high school astronomy teacher recommended to us to observe the Leonids – a November meteor shower, a few friends and I grabbed blankets and went to the darkest open place that we could think of in our neighborhood – Manhattan Beach in south Brooklyn. We lay on the freezing sand, huddling in the piercing wind, trying to see the the meteors, but the glow of the city and the bright street lights on the adjacent boardwalk washed out what was supposed to be a spectacular event.

I the only time I saw the Milky Way in all of my years living in the States was on a recent canoeing trip on Delaware. We camped on the bank in the river valley, and there, away from civilization, shielded by the high valley slopes I got to see our gorgeous galaxy spilling across the sky. You do forget how incredible that view is.

Of course I realize that my experience is not typical, however with more and more people moving into cities it is likely that fewer and fewer kids will have grown up having ever seen the full night sky. And having never seen it they will never miss one of the most awe-inspiring views that nature offers to us – a view that was available to every single person some one hundred years ago.

So when is the last time you have seen the Milky Way? If you have an opportunity – take a trip to a dark location outdoors and do some stargazing. If you don’t have an opportunity – make one. Unless you’re bed-ridden there is no excuse, and you should get out and enjoy the spectacular sky that you can still find if you try hard enough. And while you’re at it – go participate in the Globe at Night survey. Maybe once we all see what we’re missing, we’ll have the interest in doing something about it.*

* Note: Taking measures to reduce light pollution doesn’t just make sense from an ecological standpoint, but it’s also practical – a good way to save money both for yourself and your municipality.

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