News / Science & Technology

City Lights Outshine Stars, Obscure Night Sky

A satellite view of Earth showing the distribution of lights throughout the industrialized and developing worlds. This lighting overpowersbsdrowns out the night sky for the growing number of people who live in those areas. (NASA)
A satellite view of Earth showing the distribution of lights throughout the industrialized and developing worlds. This lighting overpowersbsdrowns out the night sky for the growing number of people who live in those areas. (NASA)
Adam Phillips
The starry nighttime sky our ancestors knew is disappearing from view for most of the planet’s population.

Rampant artificial light in many parts of the world has become another urban pollutant, erasing our view of the night sky, blinding ground-based telescopes and threatening the health of humans and the planetary ecosystem.

The vanishing night sky is the subject of “The City Dark,” a documentary written and directed by Ian Cheney.   

“The film begins with a very simple question," Cheney says. "What do we lose when we lose the night and the darkness and the night sky?”   

That’s both a personal and a global question for Cheney, who spent his childhood stargazing on his family’s farm in the rural northeastern state of Maine, and came to miss the night sky after moving to New York as a young man.

"Most kids in the world are now growing up without being able to see the Milky Way galaxy, this band of light that represents the hundreds of millions, the billions, of stars in our home galaxy that our sun is one of," Cheney says. "And we will see, as our people evolve, what that means, whether that means we have fewer scientists, or fewer poets or fewer philosophers. But I certainly think there is no end to the inspiration you can gain from a beautiful view of the night sky.”
The view of the night sky from the Waldoboro Maine farmhouse where “The City Dark” filmmaker Ian Cheney grew up gazing at the stars (Courtesy Wicked Delicate Films)The view of the night sky from the Waldoboro Maine farmhouse where “The City Dark” filmmaker Ian Cheney grew up gazing at the stars (Courtesy Wicked Delicate Films)
x
The view of the night sky from the Waldoboro Maine farmhouse where “The City Dark” filmmaker Ian Cheney grew up gazing at the stars (Courtesy Wicked Delicate Films)
The view of the night sky from the Waldoboro Maine farmhouse where “The City Dark” filmmaker Ian Cheney grew up gazing at the stars (Courtesy Wicked Delicate Films)

Along with inspiration, there is scientific knowledge to be gleaned, as astronomers look to space for clues about the origins of the universe. 

But direct observation has become nearly impossible in big cities as their light bounces off the dust in the atmosphere and creates a diffuse pinkish glow that can drown out all but a dozen or so of the brightest stars.       

“We’re limited to how far deep in space we can go," College of Staten Island astronomy professor Irving Robbins says in the documentary. "When you look at the sky, it’s like I have a beautiful painting, very nice. But now I come along and erase all of it. I just leave a few spots. That’s what light pollution does.”

It’s easy to understand humanity’s love affair with artificial light. For hundreds of thousands of years, all we had was fire and torchlight to help us move about and feel secure at night. In the early 1800s, gaslight was developed to brighten city streets and deter crime. Incandescent light followed late in the century, helping to create an almost perpetually-illuminated urban world.

“If a light isn’t lighting anything useful, but instead it’s shining into your bedroom window at night or spilling up into the sky, that represents a tremendous waste of energy," Cheney says. "We are burning fossil fuels to create all of this electricity that then is just wasted.”  

Cheney believes shielding outdoor lights so they illuminate only the street below is less intrusive and more efficient.

And while city lights help us see where we’re going at night, they actually cause many non-human species to lose their way.

For example, migrating birds seem to have a star map encoded in their brains that helps them navigate as they fly north in the spring and south in the fall. When birds fly over cities, they often confuse the artificial lights below with the stars above.
Dead birds which have been collected by the Field Museum of Chicago after their fatal collisions with buildings. Birds often mistake skyscraper lights for the stars they need to navigate. (Courtesy Wicked Delicate Films)Dead birds which have been collected by the Field Museum of Chicago after their fatal collisions with buildings. Birds often mistake skyscraper lights for the stars they need to navigate. (Courtesy Wicked Delicate Films)
x
Dead birds which have been collected by the Field Museum of Chicago after their fatal collisions with buildings. Birds often mistake skyscraper lights for the stars they need to navigate. (Courtesy Wicked Delicate Films)
Dead birds which have been collected by the Field Museum of Chicago after their fatal collisions with buildings. Birds often mistake skyscraper lights for the stars they need to navigate. (Courtesy Wicked Delicate Films)

“Since the lights they are looking at are behind glass, they end up, in many cases, running into the glass and they die from a major concussion," says David Willard, a zoologist at the Field Museum of Chicago. "There are estimates out there that go up to a billion birds a year actually running into windows and dying from those collisions.”

Too much light also interferes with human circadian rhythms, which depend on 24-hour cycles of darkness and light.

Epidemiologist Richard Stevens at the University of Connecticut Health Center says there is evidence linking rising rates of breast cancer in the industrialising world with the growing number of women working night shifts - under artificial light.  

“And in fact the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, just a couple years ago has now classified shift work as what they call ‘a probable human carcinogen.’"

Lighting manufacturers are responding to growing demand for bulbs that mimic natural light, and efforts are under way around the world to establish “dark sky preserves,” where light pollution is at a minimum.  

“The City Dark” filmmaker Cheney is hopeful the night sky can be saved.

“There is something comforting and esthetically pleasing about our city lights,” he says, “we just have to find a way to have them and our stars, too.”

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs countermeasure at UN More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Anonymous
July 23, 2012 12:26 PM
Very interesting depiction of Earth's night life. Some of the areas are completely dark, Africa has more dark space, which means has the potential to be further developed into Eastern US or Western Europe.

by: JC from: New Zealand
July 22, 2012 2:43 AM
Probably 90% of light is wasted, beamed into the ever lightening "night" sky. And as artificial light is so inefficiently generated, an awful lot of energy goes into the pointless lighting of the sky.

We should be dramatically reducing lights. Start by turning off the lights of commercial and office buildings. There is no point in thousands of lit-up buildings!

by: tuck from: korea
July 21, 2012 2:23 AM
everything have good & bad!

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prisoni
X
Heather Murdock
July 01, 2015 8:59 PM
As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs