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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year 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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More