I came back from Deer Isle, Maine where I spent a long week on vacation. When surrounded by natural beauty and the sea, things meteorological and astrological seem more important. The weather was great, with clear skies for our whole visit. We watched the lunar eclipse from our bedroom (good thing, as it happened at 5:28 AM). And near the end of our visit, after the moon had started to rise later, we were treated to a perfectly clear, dark sky.
We lay, backs down on the grass, looking up. I showed my kids where the big constellations were, the Milky Way was clearly evident, shooting stars dotted the scene, and of course, billions and billions of stars. It was stunning, indeed it was awesome, and not in the sense of the word frequently used by my 10-year old and his friends. No, the scene produced a feeling of awe in all of us.
I was especially looking forward to this view, having just read The Dark Side: Making War on Light Pollution in the August 20th edition of The New Yorker. And having now returned, on an equally clear and moonless night in a town outside of Boston, I see a very, very different sky. There are stars, and it’s clear, but it’s nearly impossible to tell that there’s a milky way. Nary a shooting star. And far fewer stars.
As the linked article describes, our skies are permeated with light, even at night. Not a great surprise to anyone, I suppose, but the magnitude of the effect surprised me, even after reading the New Yorker article. There are scores of reasons cited why this is a mostly unnecessary phenomenon — we use light in many cases where darkness would serve us better. So read the article, learn some things as I did, and make your own conclusions.
But just to add one thought: think of how much energy we’re using to light up those skies. If it is true that we can make changes to reduce the amount of unnecessary lighting, wouldn’t that be a good thing? It would be many orders of magnitude better than the simple acts we do as individuals to reduce our use of light to save energy — the pointless streetlight outside my bedroom is on whenever it’s dark, all year long, lighting up a whole road. Is such lighting the biggest source of energy use, or even energy waste? No. But I do wonder why these kinds of things, which must cost boatloads of money for towns and cities, don’t become the most obvious and immediate line items to cut in the annual budget.