It’s time we talked about light pollution

Do you remember the last time you stood under a completely dark sky and looked at the stars? Of course you do – probably because it was such an unusual experience.

Finally, light pollution is pervasive, so the glare from unshielded LED headlights, streetlights, and security lights is far more common in most people’s daily lives than experiencing pure darkness.

More than 80% of us worldwide live under light-polluted skies – and in North America, 80% cannot see the Milky Way.

For many there is no night – skylight veils entire cities, streaming through blinds and curtains and disturbing some people’s sleep. It has deadly effects on birds, insects and wildlife – and it harms us humans who at some point decided that darkness must always be a bad thing.

darkness is the preferably Thing — and it’s finally being celebrated, beginning this month with a new exhibit titled Lights Out: Recovering Our Night Sky at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC

Open from Thursday 23 March 2023 to December 2025, the exhibition explains how the night sky – and its disappearance due to light pollution – affects all life on earth, from natural ecosystems to human cultures.

“We hope visitors will see how increasing, pervasive light pollution is limiting our ability to observe the universe around us,” said Kim Arcand, co-curator of the guest exhibition, Chandra visualization scientist and director of emerging technologies at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian. “We want people to take action to preserve natural dark skies.”

The artificial brightening of the night sky confuses migratory birds in spring and autumn because they can no longer use the stars and moon for orientation. The exhibition shows examples of cities that reduce their lighting during migration periods.

The exhibit includes spectacular photos of the night sky, audio descriptions of the night sky, tactile representations of animals affected by light pollution, and an audio tour. One section includes a multimedia program that takes visitors from dusk to dawn, with a soundtrack of nocturnal animals and a narration that compares different cultures’ interpretations of the Pleiades star cluster – something so obvious and so obvious in a dark sky is bright, now more and more difficult to see from cities.

The exhibit was developed with The World At Night (TWAN), the International Dark-Sky Association, NASA, and the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division of the National Park Service, among others.

Perhaps most importantly, visitors can also learn how lighting became so ubiquitous – and how light pollution can be reduced quite simply by following the “Five Principles of Responsible Outdoor Lighting”.

“Since the beginning of mankind, we have been able to gaze up at the night sky and contemplate the wonders and mysteries of the world, an awe-inspiring experience that many different cultures have celebrated and held sacred,” said Stephen Loring, exhibition co-curator and Arctic Studies archaeologist center of the museum. “Our exhibition encourages visitors to stop and think about what a disappearing night sky means to them and what they can do to recreate it for themselves and others.”

I wish you clear skies and big eyes.

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