It’s easy to forget how many stars there are, how vast the universe is, until you venture into the middle of nowhere at night.
The sun had just dipped below the peaks to the west as we embarked along a set of old four-by-four ruts, largely reclaimed by grass and wildflowers, and across a sprawling meadow. A single star struggled to shine through gauzy clouds.
The dogs darted to and fro in the twilight, chasing chipmunks, rabbits, each other. A few more stars clocked in as we wound through dense aspen groves. We emerged from the trees to a starry herd, twinkling lazily like celestial cattle grazing in heaven’s pasture.
Our destination was a nearby hilltop from which we would have an open view of the sky. By the time we reached the crest, the valley below was black and the stars so plentiful that it was difficult to distinguish even the most conspicuous constellations. It was more fun to connect the dots and make up one’s own than try to spot those given names ages ago.
I once interviewed an astronomy professor who considered light pollution an environmental evil nearly on par with coal-fired power plants, petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturers, the three biggest sources of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. While light pollution isn’t that bad, it is worse than you may think (see the satellite images at the Earth Observation Group’s Night Lights project).
Like other forms of pollution, light pollution has adverse environmental, health and economic impacts. Increasing artificial light affects the habitat and habits of wildlife, from the development of plants to the migratory capabilities of birds. It disrupts our own circadian rhythms and sleep cycles. It wastes billions of dollars in energy and releases tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year.
It also diminishes our view of the night sky. And that, perhaps, is even more tragic. What wonder and perspective and joy a little stargazing offers!
A PBS report on light pollution states that an estimated 80 percent of people alive today have never glimpsed the Milky Way. That great scattering of planets and stars, our galactic home, is no longer visible in most places, its radiance muted by artificial light. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw it, but it still lurks in the darkest of skies; we beheld it on this night hike amid Pike National Forest, and it was magnificent.
On the way home, we drove past a modest mountain on the western outskirts of the Denver metro area. Its nighttime profile is robbed of a sensual, backlit silhouette by a massive, illuminated cross that blares electric light and blots out the star-filled skies. I wondered how people who proclaim to believe in God could obscure one of His greatest works.
“Thank God men cannot fly,” reflects Henry David Thoreau in the selection of journal entries I to Myself, “and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.”
The National Park Service page on light pollution
The National Park Service’s “Night Sky” program
The Atlantic’s “What Happened to the Milky Way?” video
The National Geographic article “Our Vanishing Night”
The New Yorker article “The Dark Side: Making war on light pollution”
The WIRED article “Capturing the stars that light pollution has taken from us” on light pollution and the Skyglow filmmaking project