Why We Are Losing the Night Sky

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11:30   |   Jul 14, 2019


Why We Are Losing the Night Sky
Why We Are Losing the Night Sky thumb Why We Are Losing the Night Sky thumb Why We Are Losing the Night Sky thumb


  • Hey smart people, Joe here. For pretty much all of human history, this
  • has meant the end of our day. Sure, we harnessed fire, and some artificial light, but we are
  • not natural creatures of the night. But now we’re able to be part of the night like
  • never before in human history. All thanks to the invention of the light bulb. Try to
  • imagine modern life without artificial lighting. It just isn’t possible.
  • But… all of that light comes with a dark side.
  • On January 17, 1994, a powerful earthquake struck the Los Angeles area and caused a massive
  • blackout. Nearby Griffith Observatory started receiving calls from residents asking about
  • the strange sky they were seeing. What those people saw was… the Milky Way. With no artificial
  • light, the sight of the night sky was so unfamiliar; they didn’t know what they were looking
  • at.
  • Today, more than 80% of the world and more than 99% of the U.S. and Europe live under
  • light-polluted skies. A third of humans on Earth can never see the Milky Way. And places
  • like Singapore are so polluted by light that people’s eyes never fully adjust to the
  • dark.
  • While researching light pollution the past couple months, I learned a new word: Scotopic.
  • It’s the type of vision we use in very low light levels. Whereas our normal, bright-light
  • photopic vision is produced by three types of color-sensitive cone cells, dark scotopic
  • vision is produced by the eye’s rod cells, which are great at sensing something’s brightness,
  • but can’t discriminate different colors.
  • Anyway, the reason I’d never heard of scotopic vision before is that most of us don’t experience
  • it much. Night has been taken over by light.
  • It still gets dark at night. Unless you’re near the north or south pole in summer, the
  • sun still goes down every day. But it’s not real darkness.
  • So, then… what is real darkness? I’ve been struggling for a way to explain it, because
  • how do you describe the absence of something? Well, I figure you don’t try describe what’s
  • missing, you look at what was hiding there all along.
  • Now I’m not the world’s best astro-photographer or anything, but I’ve been lucky enough
  • to take pictures in some of the darkest places left in North America: Big Bend National Park.
  • The Grand Canyon in Arizona.  And here at McDonald Observatory in West Texas.
  • And while I was out there, I met someone who’s trying to save darkness.
  • I’m Bill Wren, special assistant to the superintendent at the University of Texas
  • McDonald Observatory
  • And my job is to keep the skies dark for ongoing astronomical research here at the observatory
  • “The places where you can go to see a naturally starry sky are vanishing, they’re shrinking,
  • they’re becoming fewer and farther between. You have to travel great distances from cities
  • in order to see a naturally dark sky.”
  • An amateur astronomer named John Bortle came up with a scale to measure the night sky brightness
  • based on how many objects are visible
  • In perfectly dark skies, Bortle scale 1, there’s between maybe four and five thousand stars
  • bright enough to be visible to the naked eye from any spot on Earth. I used some software
  • called Stellarium to give you an idea of what that looks like. It’s actually hard to even
  • pick out constellations.  But most Americans live at Bortle scale 5
  • or higher, which means they aren’t seeing 98% of the stars in the sky.
  • We see people all the time at our public star parties who have never seen the Milky Way and they’re just awe inspired
  • Now the beauty of the night sky is one thing, but there’s a bunch of other reasons we
  • should protect dark skies. For astronomy I guess it’s pretty straightforward.
  • We’ve gotta be able to see the stars in the sky to do astronomical research. And
  • there’s other questions about exposure to too much artificial light at night not being
  • so good for your health. In fact, it affects the biorhythms of all living creatures on
  • the planet. There’s a cost efficiency question, in terms
  • of how much light we’re wasting into the night sky, by poorly designed and poorly installed
  • light fixtures. On the order of billions of dollars of electricity are wasted into
  • the night sky in the US alone. “This is about dark skies, not dark ground… no reason
  • to shine it wasted above the horizon and into the sky”
  • We’ve lit up streets, parking lots, buildings and every populated space we can mostly to
  • make the night more safe.
  • So when you hear people saying we should use less light at night, your first reaction might
  • be “That’ll make us less safe!” right? But as hard as it is to believe, no study
  • has ever shown that more light leads to less crime. Most property crime occurs during the
  • day. Even the worst crimes, like sexual assaults, that we normally associate with bad guys in
  • dark alleys, are far more likely to occur indoors at the hands of someone the victim
  • knows. And bad lighting can actually make bad guys harder to see.
  • More light at night can actually make us less healthy too. For hundreds of thousands of
  • years, humans evolved with the rhythms of night and day. Like other creatures, we have
  • a natural biological clock, our circadian rhythm, that’s controlled by the cycle of
  • light and dark.
  • In darkness, our bodies produce a hormone called “melatonin” that helps us sleep,
  • boosts our immune system, and helps a bunch of organs function. Light at night, especially
  • blue light, can mess with that. And LED lighting, while it saves energy and money, often peaks
  • in the blue part of the spectrum, making this problem worse. Night work has even been classified
  • by some medical groups as a risk factor for many cancers.
  • So consider putting this away at night, and if you do have to look at a screen, use night
  • mode or an app to reduce the blue light given off by your screen.
  • The more that scientists study this, the more it looks like we’ve underestimated the negative
  • effects of light, that it is truly a “pollutant” in its effect on humans and on wildlife.
  • There are countless wild species being negatively affected by our light pollution, whether they
  • are nocturnal (active at night) or crepuscular (active during twilight). Everything from
  • fireflies that can’t find mates to dung beetles who can no longer navigate by the
  • Milky Way and from baby sea turtles walking into roads instead of the sea to millions
  • of birds killed every year in collisions with buildings.
  • Every September 11th in lower Manhattan, 88 7,000 watt searchlights shine into the night
  • sky as a “Tribute in Light”
  • It’s one of the brightest light installations ever constructed, and even though it’s only
  • on for one night a year, over a million birds have been lured in by these lights, disrupting
  • their annual migrations, and many have died after colliding with buildings. That is, until
  • scientists started working with the people running the Tribute in Light to keep that
  • from happening. Now, if more than a thousand birds are counted in the lights, they’re
  • turned off for twenty minutes. You can watch on this radar image as the lights alternate
  • between on and off, and huge clouds of disoriented birds go safely on their way.
  • I think this is an inspiring example of how humans and nature can co-exist in a world
  • of artificial light. Because stopping light pollution doesn’t mean getting rid of all
  • artificial light. That’s crazy. Light pollution is not “all light at night”.
  • It’s “light out of place”. The reason satellite views of the dark side of our planet
  • look like this, is because we’re wasting that light by shining it up into space, instead
  • of using it to light our way down here.
  • Light pollution is unique because it’s the only kind of pollution we can clean up instantly.
  • Polluted water and air take decades to cleanse them of human impacts, but cleaning up the
  • night skies is easy. Just turn out the light.
  • “Definitely a sense of awe to stand and look up at the milky way and see the stars
  • splashed across the sky, and realize the 3-dimensional, the depth that you can see when you look into
  • the plane of the galaxy. Just the scale that surrounds us, the dimensions of the universe
  • on the grand scale is just awe-inspiring.” “I do believe that seeing a naturally dark
  • sky provides one with a sense of context, that sense of living in a very large space,
  • and being part of something on a very grand scale, and it does give one a sense, just
  • a thrill. Sometimes a chill up the spine. To realize that we came out of this universe
  • as opposed to being put into it… but we won’t get too philosophical here.”
  • Well, Bill may not want to get philosophical, but I think that beautifully sums up why dark
  • is just as important to our lives as the light.
  • Now, many of the beautiful shots of the night sky you’ve seen in this video are time lapses,
  • made with long-exposure photos that show you a bit more than you can see with your own
  • eyes. But I wanted to give you some idea of what you really can see with the naked eye
  • under those dark skies so few of us get to experience.
  • and while it’s not the crispiest shot in the world, I hope it captures a feeling
  • for you…
  • I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe what it is like to see this. And it is really
  • hard to come up with the words. It is something that you just have to see. And it’s something
  • that I hope people still get the chance to see. It makes you feel small and big at the
  • same time. It makes you feel far away and connected at the same time. And all I know
  • for sure is… it’s good for ya.
  • Stay curious.
  • Hey. You want more space? PBS is bringing you the universe with SUMMER OF SPACE, which
  • includes six incredible new science and history shows streaming on PBS.org and the PBS Video
  • app, along with lots of space-y episodes from PBS Digital Studios creators
  • Follow me over to AMERICA FROM SCRATCH to check out their Summer of Space episode on
  • Big thank you to McDonald Observatory for having me out to experience their dark skies.
  • McDonald Observatory and the International Dark Sky Association have some fantastic resources
  • on which types of lighting to minimize wasted light, and maximize useful light without unintended
  • effects on wildlife and plants. We’ll put links to that and a lot more down in the description.

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It never gets dark anymore. Not REALLY dark, anyway. Not like it used to. Light pollution is not only making it more difficult to see the night sky, but it's also affecting our health. For the past century and a half, since the dawn of electric light, we’ve been losing our connection to the night. We need artificial light for modern society, of course. The problem is, we need darkness for our health, and for the health of wildlife and ecosystems, and we’re not getting enough of it. I traveled to McDonald Observatory in far west Texas, one of the darkest places in North America, to learn what people are doing in order to preserve dark skies, and to see truly dark skies for myself (and so I could show them to you!). This video features time lapse night sky images that I’ve been collecting for the past few years, and I hope they make you feel something special. Turn out the lights, keep looking up, and don’t be afraid of the dark.

SOURCES/MORE INFO: https://sites.google.com/view/light-pollution-sources/home

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