Image Credit: Atlanta, Georgia skyline. © Prashant Naik

Lost in the Glare

1,510 total words    

6 minutes of reading

Twilight dawns. The sun fades into the depths of the horizon, and soon the sky unveils a dark curtain littered with thousands of stars. The Milky Way rises along the southeastern horizon, with all its stars and nebulae shimmering in a glorious display of celestial glamour. Triangle stars appear: they are called that because we perceive the brightest stars in different constellations as vertices of an imaginary triangle. From this phenomenon, we marvel at the summer-triangle stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega dominating the northern sky to winter-triangle stars Sirius, Betelgeuse, and Procyon, along with peaking meteor showers, the wonders of the night sky amaze stargazers all year round.  We can witness natural skyglow from these stars, moonlight, and zodiacal light in its pristine form.

Unfortunately, most people today rarely take the time to gaze at the night sky. When they do, depending on their proximity to a city, it can be difficult to witness or even discern any celestial beauty. If you were to step outside your home tonight and study the sky, what would you be able to see? Perhaps the blaze of the city lights would obscure your vision, or perhaps you would need to venture quite far to a dark sky site. 

You would not be alone. According to the New Global Atlas of Light Pollution,[1] produced in 2016 by scientists at the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute, 80 percent of people across the globe and more than 99 percent of the population of the United States and European Union live under artificial skyglow. Artificial skyglow, more commonly called light pollution, refers to an increase in artificial light that is scattered throughout the atmosphere, dimming natural skyglow. The artificially lit surface of Earth is increasing in its luminance and extent at night, as people spend more active time past dark outside the home, especially in urban settings. 

Artificial light is an environmental pollutant that threatens our planet’s ecosystem by disrupting the light and dark patterns of the natural world. The effects of light pollution are felt not only by humans but also by wildlife. Moths and other nocturnal insects rely on celestial sources such as the moon and stars to find their way. But artificial lighting sends them astray. The insect population has been declining with the increasing use of LED streetlights, according to field research conducted by Butterfly Conservation.

Skyglow over the city of Los Angeles as seen from Griffith Observatory. © Prashant Naik

For example, the city of Los Angeles is drenched in bright lights that emit intense artificial skyglow, also known as the bright halo. Such nighttime halos appear over most urban areas. Interestingly, Los Angeles ranks fifth among US cities for the percentage of people who sleep fewer than seven hours a night. The more nighttime activity people have, the greater demand for light and energy sources.

As a photographer, I have come to appreciate the beauty of a city’s skyline, as it reminds me of all of mankind’s incredible creations. And those creations and innovations continue: Skyscrapers are becoming taller and brighter. Laser beams from party towns, with vibrant nightlife, are projected straight into the sky. The twinkling in the sky is not the stars anymore but the airplanes or SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. There’s also light pollution from space debris and satellites that scatter light back into the atmosphere, according to a new analysis published in monthly notices by the Royal Astronomy Society. “As space gets more crowded, the magnitude of this effect will only be more, not less,” said John Barentine, director of public policy at DarkSky International.

Atlanta skyline, Georgia. © Prashant Naik

All this human progress makes it easy for us to forget what the night sky really looks like—unless we travel far away from the city lights. Now, we mostly can only imagine the starry night-sky view over a major city’s skyline.[6]

The University of Exeter conducted research on light emissions between 1992 and 2017 and found that global light pollution increased by at least 49 percent over those twenty-five years. “The global spread of artificial light is eroding the natural night-time environment,” stated the researcher Dr. Alejandro Sánchez de Miguel.

The visibility of the Milky Way is significantly reduced with increases in sky brightness. We can precisely measure the decrease in visibility. Light pollution is measured using the Bortle scale. The scale ranges from class 1, the darkest skies on Earth, through class 9, skies over the biggest cities. The scale quantifies the astronomical observability of celestial objects and the interference caused by light pollution and skyglow at a particular location. To see the Milky Way from Earth, a Bortle scale score of 5 or less is required—a level we have already surpassed in urban areas.

Milky Way from Brasstown Bald Observatory, Georgia. Bortle Class 4 site © Prashant Naik

Light pollution can be seen hundreds of miles away, and it even reaches protected areas such as nature preserves and national parks. So as cities expand, they spread their light pollution to more remote wilderness areas, disrupting patterns of darkness and light.

New Year’s Eve fireworks display in Dallas, Texas. © Prashant Naik

Above is another example of light pollution. Fireworks are often a symbol of celebration. But as a society, we do not seem to care about the significant amount of air pollution they release into the atmosphere or the light pollution they cause that affects the sleep patterns of wildlife. 

All the light we can see.

But there is hope in the dark! Light pollution, unlike air and water pollution, is completely reversible. “We don’t have to wait for generations to see change” says Ruskin Hartley, executive director of the IDA (International Dark-Sky Association). 

Without light pollution, the night sky is spectacular. We can see the Milky Way, a white, hazy band of light, with the naked eye, in bright colors and with luminous stars against the dark sky. The graceful arch of the Milky Way rises in all its glory in a dazzling display of cosmic radiance..

Milky Way arch from Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah. Bortle Class 2 site © Prashant Naik

The image above was taken at Balanced Rock in Arches National Park in Utah, in 2019, the same year the park was designated an International Dark Sky place.

Milky Way from Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona – Bortle Class 2 site © Prashant Naik

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona attained its International Dark Sky Park status in 2019. Walking the trails along the rim of the Grand Canyon, several hours after the sun goes down, is an unforgettable experience. The wonders of the cosmic world—the mysteries of the moon, stars, and Milky Way galaxy—evoke a sense of serenity and the limitless expanse of the universe. The act of gazing at the sky is also one of the basic forms of human connection, transcending time and distance.

The best landscape for stargazing is always one with a rating below 4 on the Bortle scale. Class 1 is an excellent dark sky site that makes for an absolutely beautiful stargazing experience. The zodiacal light—a faint glow caused by sunlight scattering off of dust particles in the solar system—is remarkably visible: M33 Triangulum Galaxy, a spiral galaxy located in the constellation Triangulum, might be seen with an unaided eye. Class 2 gazing also offers a truly dark sky site. Skyglow is weak and light pollution, though apparent near the horizon, is minimal: Numerous Messier objects—including star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies—are visible to the naked eye.

Perseid meteor shower, Zion National Park, Utah © Prashant Naik

The six-mile road into Zion Canyon also offers amazing views of the night sky. The dream of a pristine nighttime experience comes true at Zion National Park in Utah. This wouldn’t have been possible without park officials’ efforts to preserve the night skies with the support of local government agencies and conservation groups.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California. © Prashant Naik

Death Valley National Park, the largest national park in the contiguous United States, receives a lot of recognition for being a dark sky park, free of light pollution free. The night sky there is surreal. More than 93 percent of the park is a designated wilderness area. Starlight is the nighttime guiding light for all the species of plants and animals there that have adapted to the desert climate. However, lights from Las Vegas and Pahrump, Nevada, situated within a hundred miles of Death Valley, creep in and can still have an impact on desert nightlife. 

The list of US national parks and sanctuaries certified as International Dark Sky Places continues growing in number. DarkSky International recognizes these places for their exceptional quality of starry nights and healthy nocturnal environments. These efforts, and those of many environmental activists around the globe, promise to continue preserving the night sky for future generations. As communities become aware of the detrimental effects of light pollution, they can take action to mitigate, and even reverse, the trend. The dream of having a true night sky experience in your own backyard could be a reality someday!

  • Prashant Naik

    Prashant Naik is a photographer and writer. He specializes in environmental and technical writing in the field of information technology. As a photographer, Prashant combines his skills in creating compelling stories: “While photographs capture the essence of the scene, I use words to tell the untold stories. My photo art leans toward Mother Nature and the beauty of the night.”  

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