Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Stars At Night and the Move to See Them Better

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.


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