Space & Innovation

Starry, Starry Night? Not For Most Of Us

Light pollution obscures view of Milky Way for 80 percent of Americans and one-third of the world's population, a new study shows.

<p><em>NPS/D. Duriscoe</em><em></em><span></span><br></p>

Go outside tonight and look up. Even if it's not cloudy, chances are you won't see much. A new study shows 80 percent of Americans and one-third of the world's population can't see the Milky Way galaxy because of the glow of city lights.

"We've got whole generations of people in the United States who have never seen the Milky Way," said Christopher Elvidge, an Earth scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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"It's a big part of our connection to the cosmos -- and it's been lost," he said.

Incorporating new high-resolution images from NOAA's Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership spacecraft, scientists updated a 10-year-old atlas showing how artificial light fills the world's nighttime skies.

The results show the Milky Way is hidden from more than one-third of humanity, including 60 percent of Europeans and nearly 80 percent of North Americans, Fabio Falchi, with the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Thiene, Italy, and colleagues write in a paper published on Friday in Science Advances.

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"Moreover, 23 percent of the world's land surfaces between 75°N and 60°S, 88 percent of Europe, and almost half of the United States experience light-polluted nights," the authors said.

Some places, such as Singapore, have so much light pollution that people never experience true night.

"In such places, most of the population lives under skies so bright that their eyes cannot fully adapt to night vision," the researchers said.

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Of the G20 countries, Italy and South Korea have the most light pollution and Canada and Australia the least.

"In Western Europe, only a few small areas remain where the night sky remains relatively unpolluted, including areas in Scotland, Sweden, Norway, and parts of Spain and Austria," the International Dark-Sky Association said in a related press release.

If you crave dark skies, head to Chad, the Central African Republic or Madagascar.

"More than three-quarters of inhabitants in these places (are) living under pristine, ink-black night sky conditions," a summary of the research said.

Stargazers in the United States might want to set their sights on the national parks, which lie beneath some of the darkest skies in America.

"Some of our national parks are just about the last refuge of darkness -- places like Yellowstone and the desert southwest," said study co-author Dan Duriscoe, with the National Park Service.

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Scott Feierabend, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association, called the atlas "a major breakthrough" that will serve as a benchmark to assess efforts reduce light pollution in urban and natural areas.

"Light pollution does more than rob humans of the opportunity to ponder the night sky. Unnatural light can confuse or expose wildlife like insects, birds and sea turtles, often with fatal consequences," NOAA and the University of Colorado's Cooperative Institute for Research In Environmental Sciences, said in a joint press release.

"Fortunately, light pollution can be controlled by shielding lights to limit shine to the immediate area, reducing lighting to the minimum amount needed -- or by simply turning them off," the agencies said.

Image: Mitten Park Fault frames this night sky view of the Milky Way and constellations at Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado. Credit: NPS/D. Duriscoe