I never feel more connected with nature than when I am surrounded by it in raw form. Experiences like camping or hiking while greatly removed from the concrete jungles of civilization make me appreciate the beauty of our environment. My thoughts slow down, and it’s even possible to enjoy the lack of cell service for a while. While the number of people living in cities continues to grow around the world, most of us do not have to travel very far to have these types of experiences. Most of us even recognize the need to protect these shrinking natural environments not just for the enjoyment of escape, but because we depend on them. But there is something disappearing faster than undeveloped environments: our universe. Not literally of course, but from our sight. As cities expand all over the world, and countries develop to compete in the modern economy, we are losing our night sky to the train of progress. As astronomers, this is a serious problem as we have watched the pristine views of space from Mt. Wilson and Kitt Peak slowly fall victim to metropolitan growth over the years, so we need little lecturing about the importance of preserving our night sky. However, to most non-astronomers, seeing fewer stars does not mean much.
One of my favorite quotations comes from Neil Degrasse Tyson when he is describing his first view of a truly dark sky. He notes that his first thought is how much it reminds him of the Hayden Planetarium, not the other way around! Many of us never forget that first experience of seeing a truly dark sky; seeing so many stars above that the world seems wrapped in a blanket of light. Without the lights below, a passing cloud looks like a giant black hole eating a portion of the sky as it passes overhead. Strange as it may seem, if you have experienced this, you are lucky. Many kids and even many adults never experience that wonder, and one can only imagine what the consequences of this are.
At the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, TX this past winter, I had a chance to see a special screening of the documentary, The City Dark. The documentary is a journey through the unseen effects of light pollution (the effect of city lights blocking our night sky), which may be more severe than you realize. Two of these really got my attention. The first was a direct effect on the survival of newly hatched turtles. When baby turtles hatch on the beach and dig their way out of the sand, usually at night, they need to get to the ocean quickly to avoid becoming food for something else. To do so, they are hardwired to head for the brightest light source which has always been the reflection of star light off the ocean waves… until recently. Now with developed beaches and nearby cities, the starlight is no longer the brightest light source, and many turtles head off in the wrong direction, never making it to their intended destination.
The second is a more abstract effect on the human species. That feeling of awe and wonder most of us experience when we look up at a dark sky can make us feel small, fragile, and even special. One of the amazing things about our universe is that it is accessible to everyone. You don’t need a multi-million dollar lab to see the bodies of our solar system, the brilliant stars and diffuse gas clouds in our galaxy, and even the nearest galaxies to our own. In fact, all you need are your two delicately evolved eyes and a soft surface to lean back on for hours of enjoyment. What happens when you take that away? Does society lose our sense of place in the universe? Does it affect our psyche in a profound way? The first astronauts tried to convey the Earth as this fragile blue marble, but you don’t have to go to space to appreciate that fact. All we have to do is turn down the lights.
The City Dark will be on airing on PBS this summer starting July 5th, and I would highly recommend watching. Everyone can do their part to reduce the effects of light pollution by taking their own steps and educating others. The International Dark Sky Association has been around for many years protecting what we have and has lots of great information on their website. Be a part of the solution, and don’t let our sky disappear!