Cherish our Dark Skies
by Jim Richardson
When school groups come into Small World Gallery I have a special delight that I like to share. I take them over to my photograph of the Milky Way stretching across the night sky at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah. “Do you ever wonder,” I ask, “What it would look like if you lived inside of a galaxy?” Their eyes get big.
“Well,” I answer, “you do! We live inside the Milky Way. Earth and our sun sit about two-thirds of the way out on one of those spiral arms. The Milky Way our galactic home in the universe.”
For as long as humans have been human (and long before the first ancient astronomers put names to the constellations) we have been gazing up at the night sky trying to make sense of our place in universe. That ink-black darkness studded with jewel-like stars is one of our greatest gifts, and that view is a common heritage we share with our most distant ancestors.
But now that heritage is being lost, the victim of a particularly modern malady: light pollution. When you say those words many people won’t know what you are talking about. But almost everyone understands one simple fact: they can no longer see the stars and the Milky Way like they could when they were kids. Light pollution is the culprit.
The night sky, that glorious black richness where the gods of old lived amid the sparkling stars and the wandering planets, is fading from our lives. Fading not into dimness, but awash in light, the unanticipated legacy of Edison's wonderful light bulb. Barely a century after it’s invention, the electric light has wiped out much of the once-vast sky-scape of our ancestors. Perhaps eighty percent of the world — or put another way, four out of five of the children born today — may never see the Milky Way again. (Already I find people who don’t know what they are seeing when I show them a picture of the Milky Way.)
If this loss is profound, it is also curable. Great swaths of this storied darkness can be reclaimed, often by simple means, with huge savings of resources, and with far-reaching benefits for our climate as well as our heritage.
So I welcome any chance I get to talk about the wonders of the night and their natural enemy, light pollution.
In a lecture I have delivered many times (both here in the US and abroad) I draw on the work I did for our National Geographic story, The End of Night, which was published in the November 2009 issue. It began by establishing for our readers the great and beautiful wonder of the dark sky, showing them the splendor many may never have seen. We then explored the night-world of light pollution (not a very pretty sight), and focused on the unintended but deadly consequences for life in nature; Most of all we wanted to show the simple, economical — and often painless — ways this blight can be reversed.
It is worth remembering that what is being lost can be regained. Many cites around the world are refitting their night lighting with energy efficient LED street lights. This is a great, once-in-a-generation opportunity. And around the world the International Dark-Sky Association is fostering the creation of Dark Sky Parks and Dark-Sky Places, where local communities and governments have banded together to preserve and reclaim the heritage of the night.
If you would like to learn more about the problem and what you can do, go here: http://www.darksky.org