Tag Archives: astrophotography

Reasons to seriously address Light Pollution

Since the dawn of humanity our ancestors have been able to look up at the night sky in its untainted entirety with respect and awe. The night sky must have been the biggest source of guidance, comfort and storytelling to those accustomed to only having campfires as a source of light. We may owe much of our cultural evolution to the night sky. Religion and civilization in general are likely the results of our wonderment over various astronomical events. Imagine a world where every sentient being has had an equal opportunity to view the splendors of the night sky unaltered. Today this is not a possibility. Many people in modern times haven’t had the chance to travel anywhere remote enough to view the sky without being inhibited by what is known as light pollution, or “skyglow”. Nowadays, we walk outside of our city homes on a crisp, clear night and see only a handful of stars. Light pollution is the byproduct of our modernized world. The technological advancements which have provided us so much security and visibility may actually be disconnecting us further from our natural selves. Not everyone has the time or inclination to drive so many miles outside of the nearest city just to see a more wholesome night sky; even when in a seemingly remote area, light pollution from large cities still tends to dampen the sky to a degree. The loss of our night sky could result in our downfall, but to bring back its undiluted brilliance could mean a boost in our sense of self and fascination in the natural world.

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A comparison of the view of the night sky from a small rural town (top) and a metropolitan area (bottom). Light pollution dramatically reduces the visibility of stars. via Wikipedia

The fact that the vast majority of the human species can no longer view the night sky in its entirety is detrimental to our spirituality. If it is true that human civilization was founded upon astronomical events, then it can’t be good that we are potentially cutting ourselves off from these roots. A disconnection from the starry night could mean a disconnection from ourselves and our curiosity. Seeking to understand the stars and our place in the universe has been one of the primary motivators of scientific progression and cultural evolution.

Aside from the suspected spiritual detriments light pollution may cause, there are more obvious problems as well. For one, it’s going to be increasingly harder for astronomers to study celestial objects as urbanization and mega-cities become more prominent. Scientists will have to resort to solely building space-based telescopes which are currently expensive to launch and come with their own inconveniences, like the difficulty of repairing them or the allocation of usage. This is not only true for professional scientists: amateur, or citizen scientists, will have an even harder time aiding in discoveries as well. When we can no longer analyze the sky we lose out on inspiring the youth and the general public. We may also miss out on important discoveries such as near-Earth asteroids, supernovae, or extra-planetary asteroid impacts. Additionally, light pollution is actually known to cause disruptions in ecological systems. Studies show that certain types of artificial lighting can cause physical and psychological problems for humans and other animals. We humans have existed in the same biological form for tens of thousands of years, meaning that our psychological health may be attuned to our ability to view the night sky. Similarly, improper light exposure has been known to throw off our circadian rhythm.  

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http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1222a/

Efforts to restore the magnificence of the undiluted night sky range from implementing policies, to unique lighting technologies and petitions for “lights off” days. Businesses, neighborhoods, cities, and national governments can all implement policies ranging from minimal light requirements at certain hours of the day, to restricting the use of certain types of lighting that emit a troublesome ambiance. Some people have gone so far as to petition for widespread days of no lights, which would require cities to restrict light usage for some arbitrary time frame — maybe even just two hours out of the night — so that citizens can reap the benefits of absolute minimal light pollution. These anti-light events could be timed during notable astronomical events like major meteor showers or auroras. We would no longer have to rely on enhanced digital media to see what the universe has to offer.

This is not to say that technological advancement and urbanization is a wholly bad thing; we can continue making our way towards mega-cities. We just need to stop neglecting collateral damage. If you are interested in ways that you can help combat light pollution, a good place to start is naturally the internet. The Dark Skies Awareness organization is dedicated to the fight; there are ways for anyone to donate to their efforts or to become a subscribed member which offers certain benefits. Search for petitions online that are calling for days of no light, or that are calling for action and policies against skyglow. Refit your homes and businesses with lighting that doesn’t emit sub-optimal levels of light pollution, and spread the word! We must treat light pollution with the same disdain that we view environmental pollution and climate change. Losing the night sky destroys us spiritually while losing the biosphere destroys us physically.

If we can restore the brilliance of the night sky in some way, who knows what sort of cultural changes will take place. As a civilization we may have forgotten something about ourselves, and the reintroduction of the night sky could inspire revolutionary thinking to the same degree it inspired religions and the birth of civilizations. It would cause a spiritual revolution. Looking upon the stars is actually looking upon ourselves. Like many scientists have said: we are made of stardust; we owe everything about our existence to those floating points in the sky. When you look at the band of the Milky Way across the sky, you’re really looking at the center of our galaxy edge-on. Grasping this perspective would be a profound experience to someone unfamiliar with an optimally unpolluted sky. Maybe all it will take are enough people to really understand our place in the cosmos in this way for humanity to really take space exploration seriously.

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