How Dark is Your Nighttime Sky?

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By Amy Miller
When my sister cancelled our trip to Carter Notch this summer, it was not the mountains or hike I was saddest to lose. It was the darkness. Our annual pilgrimage to the White Mountains is the one night a year when I can sit in darkness among the stars.

Most of the year, I see the glow of a streetlight out my window. Behind my house, I can get in the shadow, but the light from my neighbor’s spotlight, the empty church parking lot, and the school up the road all add light pollution to the night sky.

We have had dark nights and light days through most of history. Today, however, two thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way at night from where they live. And, just about all of us live within the glare of some nighttime illumination. Even places like Acadia National Park are threatened by light from nearby cities. A friend of mine told me recently that people travel to Lyford Pond, in Maine, just to experience dark skies.

Each August, stargazers look to the skies to see meteor showers. Although you can see some of this yearly light show nearly everywhere, how much you can see depends on where you are: 50 or even 100 shooting stars an hour in Maine’s logging country, but only a handful in downtown Boston.

Some research suggests that night light creates stress, headaches and anxiety as our circadian rhythms are disrupted. And there are ecological costs, including disoriented migrating birds fly into buildings and sea turtles losing nesting areas.

In 1992, few towns had outdoor lighting laws. One of the first was written by Peter Talmage in Kennebunk, Maine. He was a member of the New England Light Pollution Advisory Group, a stargazer, and an engineer with experience in outdoor lighting. That law limited the intensity of outdoor lights and regulated the addition of new street lights.

Today, many communities nationwide are passing nighttime lighting laws. Others are voluntarily turning off street lights. Beyond light pollution, avoiding over-lighting at night saves several billion dollars a year and eliminates an estimated 38 million tons of carbon dioxide.

I rarely take the time to enjoy night skies. And when I do, artificial lighting prevents me from gazing into the starry universe I remember from childhood. Losing naturally dark skies is as sad as losing forests, fresh air or clean water.

Here’s some more information on enjoying a nighttime sky in a national park.

About the author: Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, eight chickens, one dog and a great community.