I grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina, so I was used to dark, starry nights, but nothing prepared me for the inky black wonder I experienced on those isolated campsites in Yellowstone. Camping out on a moonless night in rural, isolated Wyoming is to experience the night life our ancestors knew, for all those thousands of years before the street lamps came.
Since moving to the Shenandoah Valley, some friends and I have had the pleasure of scanning the heavens from some pretty dark locations. There's nothing like viewing the Milky Way from atop a mountain. My friends, who have deep roots here in the Valley, have told me, however, that: "you should have seen these skies a generation ago... now the Valley is lit up like Christmas tree."
Indeed. The night sky today just isn't as dark as it used to be, especially on the east coast and in Europe. Satellite imagery taken over the last five decades proves it. One half of the earth's natural environment--the star-filled night-sky--is being lost in a yellow haze.
Light pollution dims our enjoyment of the heavens, disrupts wildlife and human sleep patterns, and contributes to our increasing detachment from nature.
According to National Geographic, "darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself." Sky and Telescope magazine says "this monotonous, wasteful glow hides beautiful and richly meaningful sky wonders." It also wastes energy. The International Dark Sky Association estimates that light pollution costs at least $2.2 billion per year in the U.S. alone.
This problem, however, can be corrected with relative ease and minimal expense: turn off and reduce our lighting. Some light at night, of course, is necessary, but by reducing the number of street lamps, updating old fixtures with pollution reducing shields, using timers, photocells, and smart technology, and by simply turning off unnecessary lights, we can save money, energy, and improve our environment. It would also bring back the awesome beauty of the night.
-- Matthew Poteat is an assistant professor of history at Central Virginia Community College and am amateur stargazer.