One of the best things about living in North Dakota is the opportunity to look up and see the stars. You don’t have to travel too far to get away from all artificial light and to find a spot where the horizon makes a complete circle and you can see innumerable stars.
Some time ago, I heard a radio program describing where to find the time and location of the space shuttle as it passed over the northern hemisphere in its pursuit of the space station. I looked up the information and my spouse and I drove out to the hilltop behind our shelter belt, turned out the lights and watched the stars. (We drove because it was still warm and the mosquitoes were very hungry.) It was dark and the stars seemed especially bright. Then, right on schedule, the space station appeared in the Northwest and zipped to the East. A short distance behind, the shuttle chased after it. The shuttle and the space station looked like really bright, fast-moving stars. We couldn’t see the astronauts waving or anything, but was moving to think about the people in the shuttle speeding through space far above us.
I’ve lived here on the Northern Plains most of my life. I’ve taken for granted the ability to look up at the sky and see what I see on a clear fall evening. During the big blackout along the East Coast a some years back, the news reported people’s alarm when the lights went out and they looked up to see how bright the stars were. Eighty percent of all Americans live in urban areas where, like in New York City, you can’t see the night sky, except in a major black out.
We are surrounded, even on the Northern Plains, by light pollution. If you have ever landed in an airplane at the Grand Forks airport at night, you have seen how the landscape is dotted with lights far outside the city limits. A really fascinating look at the night sky can be found at <http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=79800>. It is a composite of many satellite photos of the United States at night. Even from space, our night lights are bright.
That might not really seem like a big deal until you investigate the term “light pollution.” It is estimated that light pollution costs between five and ten billion dollars a year. Those numbers may seem live overstatement. How can the light seen from space waste money? I learned in physics that light is energy and if that energy can be seen from space it is not being focused where it is needed. Light that shoots upward is not illuminating the street below. That light has escaped either to the side or up into the sky. Energy is being wasted. If you look at the satellite photo of the earth’s lights, consider that most of the electricity powering those lights is generated by coal and oil burning power plants producing greenhouse gasses and using precious natural resources.
Astronomers are concerned about the prevalence of light everywhere at night because they are having a hard time finding dark places to put telescopes. The Apache Point Observatory, built 25 years ago on a desert mountain top can no longer escape the lights of El Paso Texas which is more than 130 miles away. From my house in the middle of nowhere, I can see the lights of Langdon more than 16 miles away and even the glow of Morden, Manitoba reflecting off the clouds. Imagine how many miles away the lights of Las Vegas can be seen!
The solutions to light pollution are relatively simple. Turn off outdoor lights that are not needed. Use the smallest wattage bulb that will provide the light necessary. Put shields on outdoor lights that reflect the light down where it does some good.
Then on some cool, clear fall evening when the mosquitoes have been frozen, take a walk away from the lights that surround you and look up in wonder.