29 July 2009

"The Death of Night"

Der Spiegel has a report on the struggle to prevent "light pollution" of the night sky.
People living in Germany no longer react with awe when they happen to look up at the sky on a clear night. Nothing twinkles in the heavens anymore, and most Germans are only familiar with the majestic appearance of the Milky Way from trips abroad...

In Germany, a truly dark sky is nowhere to be found. Andreas Hänel, an astronomer in the northwestern city of Osnabrück and head of a German dark-sky association, recently went looking for a place to view the stars in the eastern Alps. He was unable to find even a single spot that has remained completely protected from light smog.

Billions of insects die on streetlights each year or in the webs of the spiders that live on these lights in unnaturally large quantities. Many birds flying at night become confused by the light smog and collide with brightly lit high-rise buildings. Light-sensitive frogs stop their mating activity, thereby producing fewer or no offspring. Freshly hatched sea turtles crawl toward the light on streets instead of into the ocean. Salamanders remain hidden longer than usual, because of insufficient darkness, which deprives them of the time they need to search for food.
I occasionally camp out in northern Minnesota, far from the lights of any large city. I am recurrently amazed at the spectacle of the night sky. At my suburban home in southern Wisconsin I can see hundreds of stars, but when I'm on the shore of a northern lake and look up, the star count is multiplied by perhaps 50, the Milky Way is awesome, planets are visible, and meteors cross the sky.

I strongly encourage anyone who lives in an urban setting and vacations in a rural one to set an alarm clock for 0230 on a clear night, and to then step outside to see what you've been missing.

The photo is today's Astronomy Picture of the Day, depicting Devil's Tower (in Wyoming) against a background of a starry night. (lots of interesting pix to browse through at that site)


  1. a clear, *moonless* night :)

  2. That's a great pic of the DT, but has it be doctored? Being one of the aforementioned urbanites, it strikes me as odd that you would get such a striking glimpse of the galaxy when sunlight is still clearly visible.

    Nitpickingly yours...

  3. I lived in southern Bavaria from 1996-1998 at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. The skies there then were certainly much more full of stars than back home here in Maryland, but nothing like my childhood in south New Jersey in the 1940's. The best nights I ever saw was on a cruise on a ship from Japan to Hong Kong in the early 1960's.

    Increasing light pollution equals, to a certain degree, increasing carbon emissions.

  4. ...And people think I'm crazy to have NO outside lights on my 15 acre rural property. My nightime views are phenominal!

  5. The best stargazing I ever had was in September of '96 when Hurricane Fran caused a complete blackout of central and eastern NC. The sky was beautiful.


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