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

Photogallery South Africa Bans Travelers From Ebola-stricken Countries

South Africans returning from affected West African countries will be thoroughly screened, required to fill out medical questionnaire, health minister says More

Multimedia UN Launches ‘Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years’ in Iraq

Move aims to help thousands of Iraqi religious minorities who fled their homes as Kurdish, Iraqi government forces battle Sunni insurgents More

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

IT specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about disease 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.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid