|Seeing the Milky Way at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah|
Since moving to the West, I've developed an interest in "dark skies," the movement to address light pollution and see the night skies better, while at the same time encouraging a better public understanding of the environmental and biological costs of too much artificial light.
My most recent article on this was in Al Jazeera America.
One of the people I spoke with was Paul Bogard, whose new book, “The End of Night: Searching For Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light” (Little, Brown 2013), is a trenchant look at the phenomenon. And one of the things I liked best about the book was its evocation of the moments of awe most of us will feel when confronted with a truly dark sky -- the kind of star-filled sky that our ancestors witnessed throughout history until humans began to lose touch with true dark skies with advent of electric light more than a century ago, and the subsequent domination of the dark that this new light source achieved throughout most of the world.
When I spoke with him a few weeks ago, Bogard recalled his first experience with a starry sky, as a youth 20 years ago, while backpacking in Morocco near the Atlas Mountains on the desolate edge of the Sahara.
“I walked out in the middle of the night and I was startled. I’m from Minnesota, and my first thought was that it was snowing. Of course, I’m standing there in summer, in shorts and no shirt; it clearly was not snowing. I was just seeing a sky filled with stars, stars that started at one horizon and went to the next. No moon, no artificial light. Just a night tumbling with more stars than I ever imagined were in the universe,” he said.
There are now several generations of people in developed parts of the world who have never seen a truly starry night. There are generations of humans for whom the only clearly identifiable object in the night sky is the moon.
The effects of seeing a clear night sky for the first time can be interesting. In 1994, when the Northridge earthquake struck Los Angeles, and widespread power outages plunged some of the region into pre-dawn darkness, some alarmed citizens called emergency centers to report seeing a giant “silvery cloud” over the Los Angeles Basin. Was it a monstrous terrorist gas attack? A meteorological freak related to the earthquake?
No, it was just the Milky Way in all of its splendor, spread across a suddenly dark sky. They had simply never seen the Milky Way before.
Here's a link (which in turn has a wealth of scientific and other links) to the International Dark-Sky Association, the Tucson-based worldwide group that is doing spectacular work in calling attention to light pollution and the virtues of using common sense to encourage darker skies.
And here's a link to the dark-sky program at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, one of the places in the U.S. where you can still really see the stars.