The Empty Night – New York’s Growing Problem of Light Pollution

It goes without saying that New York City is not the ideal place for stargazing. To anyone that’s been staring up at the heavens for the past few decades, it is obvious that ugly orange skyglow has been getting worse as the city develops.

We can only imagine what ancient people felt when they looked up to a clear night sky. We know that they revered the heavens and ascribed supernatural importance to the movements the millions of myriad points of celestial light.

The stars, the planets, the phases of the moon, the event of darkness itself runs deep in our evolutionary and social history. Darkness helped early people schedule harvests and planting. The darkness reminded us that we are at the mercy of nature. The stars reminded us that there is more to the world than just human society. The magnificent band of stars, the Milky Way, showed that there are bigger things out there.

Today, the night is no longer dark. The brilliance of the night sky is replaced with nothing but a faint orange glow. There is almost nothing that we can see in New York City that is outside of human society. Nothing is beyond our reach.

That permanent orange full moon that urban skies reflect back is called light pollution, or skyglow. For astronomers, the growth of light pollution is more than just a cosmetic difference. It cuts us off from the cosmos and isolates us from the rest of our galaxy.

Light pollution also messes up the migration of nocturnal animals and makes it difficult for prey animals to get a chance to forage under the cloak of darkness.

Light pollution can be prevented. When outdoor lighting is reflected off of surfaces, or shined straight into space, dust particles and moisture in the atmosphere reflects our light back at us, making an artificial daylight.

It is more cost-effective and environmentally safe for cities to employ streetlights with different chemistry that only point downward, rather than into the sky.

. The city of Flagstaff, Arizona has been regulating streetlights and other outdoor lighting to preserve the brilliance of the night sky for decades. The Czech Republic has made nationwide efforts to eliminate unnecessary glare.

I have been interested in light pollution since I was about ten years old. I was, of course, an amateur astronomer, and the skyglow from my town frustrated my efforts to see things like the Milky Way, other galaxies, and nebulae. I looked into amateur astronomers’ associations in New York and met Art through the Amateur Astronomer’s Association. We met at Floyd Bennett Field, New York’s first airport. This was the only place in New York City that I have ever been where light pollution was at a minimum. As you can see in the footage, even there, the intense population density of New York is visible in the clear night sky.

Art is a former Brooklyn science teacher, and a voluable fellow with

If you look up and you just see one or two little bright lights in the sky, it doesn’t say, “Here I am look at what is out here!”

If you see something with your own eyes, it’s not in the book. You’re seeing it in real time right now. And usually most people and most kids kinda say, “Wow, yeah, you were right, it’s not a picture, it’s reality, I’m seeing the thing at this moment in time.

Kids today, the only time they really become aware of the sky is when I drag them out. And then they say, “oh wow! Look at this stuff.”

From the time that I got started stargazing I found that the light pollution was only a little problem.

Uh, I could go in the backyard, set up my scope, and be able to do some semblance of stargazing in this area of downtown Brooklyn. But, unfortunately the downtown area has developed. And you have companies that feel they need to tell everybody where they are and who they are. It just adds to the overall glow of light that’s in the area. It’s sad

I think our ancestors going back hundreds of thousands of years ago had a better connection with the sky than we do today. And they wanted to know what is the relation between those things out there and us.

Light pollution links:

A story in NatGeo about the effects that artificial daytime has on animals.

Resources from the International Dark-Sky Association

NY Section of the IDA:

An article about an art project about light pollution:

Sensible and Efficient Lighting to Enhance the Nighttime Environment:

Long Island Sierra Club on light pollution:

Amateur Astronomers Association:

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