The Kid Should See This

What can we do to save our dark skies? (And why should we?)

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In this PBS Terra video, America Outdoors host Baratunde Thurston explores “how the darkness of night is not just important to experience the wonders of the cosmos, it’s vital to maintaining healthy ecosystemsβ€”and saving the epic migrations of America’s birds.”

About 80% of the people in North America can’t see the Milky Way from where they live,” climate scientist and Board Chair of DarkSky Colorado Aaron Watson explains. “There’s too much light pollution.”

“They call it sky glow. So it’s essentially all the lights from the ground that people use are shining up into the sky. The light goes up into the atmosphere and bounces off particles in the atmosphere and scatters everywhere you look. It essentially creates like a perpetual twilight all night long.”

light pollution
Why does this matter? Via Vox, light pollution can disrupt our sleep, it wastes energy, it can diminish our sense of the universe, and it messes with insects, birds, and other wildlife, devastating the biodiversity and balance of our natural world.

Mikko Jimenez showing how the radar detects bird migration at night
Colorado State University researchers Mikko Jimenez and Dr Kyle Horton use radar aeroecology to learn more about the nighttime activities of insects and birds in the lower atmosphere, including bird migration patterns.

Incredible bird migration stats
In the thousands of years before artificial illumination, our ancestors inhabited a world profoundly different from our well-lit modern nights. When darkness descended, the natural world could be a realm of wonder, imagination, and a deeper understanding of the universe and the rhythms of our planet. From NPS.gov:

“Ancient peoples studied the stars for thousands of years and used these observations for navigation, predicting or confirming seasonal changes, and religious purposes. Stories were woven about the meanings of the positions of different stars, answers to life problems were foretold in the movements of heavenly bodies. Past peoples used the stars because they were an integral part of life.”

dark skies
But the night also brought shadows and obscured hazards to our ancestors’ lives, including limited visibility and the threat of nocturnal predators. What happened as modern technologies developed?

In 1700s America and England, oil lamps began to light city streets. In the early 1800s, gas street lighting appeared. Then on March 31, 1880, four bright electric lightsβ€”each as powerful as 3,000 candlesβ€”were placed high above the county courthouse in Wabash, Indiana, making it the first electrically lighted city in the world.

Two years later, Thomas Edison illuminated New York City, and by the first two decades of the 20th century, incandescent lights became became “popular choice among municipal utilities for public street lighting.”

confused insects
Centuries after our ancient observations, PBS Terra notes: “we’ve succeeded so well in our illumination efforts, we have literally dimmed the stars.”

Enter the international Dark Sky movement and Dark Sky Communities like Paonia, Colorado, one of many towns dedicated to protecting our ancient view of the night. Watson summarizes:

“People think that Dark Sky, we’re trying to come and take the lights away. We’re not. We’re just asking people to use it responsibly and not shine it into the night sky or into their neighbor’s yard.”

bird migration headlines

“You know, we’re not really trying to tell people what to do. We’d rather educate people and have them make the right decision themselves ’cause once they have the education, it’s really a win-win for everyone. You know, you get the light where you need it and then you don’t have it where you don’t. That’s really all we’re asking.”

a protected dark sky in Colorado
Find more America Outdoors videos on PBS and PBS Terra.

Essential Information: DarkSky.org and CSU AeroEco Lab’s Lights Out Alerts.

Learn more with these light pollution videos on TKSST:
β€’Β Star Parties In Our National Parks: Parks After Dark
β€’Β What happened to the Milky Way?
β€’Β Puffling Patrol: Rescuing puffin chicks in Iceland
β€’Β Why are moths obsessed with lamps?
β€’Β DISHDANCE, a time lapse for The Skyglow Project

Bonus animation: Borrowed Light: An ambitious plan to see the light by stealing it.

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