March 3, 2014

In the Dark of the Night

The Milky Way... 

Have you ever seen it? Have you seen it recently? Will you ever see it again? In far too many places on this planet, particularly in the developed world, the glow of the stars and galaxies in the night sky is almost undetectable. All you can see are stars and planets too bright to be drowned out by man made light pollution. 

The lesser-developed areas of the world fair far better than most Americans when it comes to visualizing the awesome beauty of the unobscured night sky. This may be North Korea's one claim to superiority over its neighboring cousins.

The adverse effects of artificial light include sky glow, glare, light trespass, light clutter, decreased visibility at night, and energy waste. Light pollution is not only a hinderance to astronomy, but it also impacts us directly. There is strong evidence that excessive nighttime light exposure has a connection to cancer in humans. Light pollution also has been determined to adversely affect wild animals, birds and beneficial insects.  

There is an organization dedicated to salvaging what can be from the blight of light. This is the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). To date the IDA has established 10 Dark Sky Reserves worldwide. There are also Dark Sky Parks, six of which are in the United States. The most recent addition is a 600 acre preserve of old growth timber in Emmet County, Michigan. The Headlands Dark Sky Park is south of Macinaw City in the northernmost reaches of Lower Michigan, very near the Straits of Mackinac.

Manmade light pollution is problem on so many fronts, not the least of which is the loss of awe, wonder and curiosity in the children. The night sky has inspired marvels ranging Copernican astronomy, Galileo's telescope, Heinrich Olbers' paradox, Kepler's three laws, Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone, Asimov's Nightfall to Sagan's Cosmos. We sent men to the moon with that awe and wonder in our hearts, and we still dream of travelling to the stars. What is going to happen when whole generations of inner city kids lose that wonder?