I grew up under the light-polluted skies of suburban Massachusetts. From a young age, I was fascinated by the night sky. However, due to the densely populated cities and towns around me, I was never able to see very much of it.
It wasn’t until my third year of college that I saw the Milky Way for the first time. My school offered an intensive, 3-week ecology class at a field station along Dennys Bay in Maine far away from city lights. So, for the final three weeks of August that year, I spent my days trudging through the nearby intertidal zones to identify plants and sea life, and my nights rushing through homework so I could go out and enjoy the night sky. On one particularly clear night during the new moon, I found out there was an old telescope stashed in one of the storage buildings and brought it out to an open field to try to get my first glimpse of the galaxies, nebulae, and other deep sky wonders I could never see from back home. When my professor walked past me on the way to his cabin, I mentioned to him that I may be too enthralled in the night sky to complete the reading homework for the following day. I expected to receive something to the effect of a disapproving glare, but he instead responded by telling me that the library where he used to study had a sign above one of the doorways that read “Study Nature, Not Books,” and then walked away.
After college, I made the decision to buy my first DSLR camera—a Canon Rebel XS and 18-55mm kit lens—the motivation behind which was to begin trying to photograph the night sky. Given my total lack of knowledge when it came to cameras, my learning curve was a slow and gradual one, and most of my progress came through trial and error while traveling to darker places like Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, Joshua Tree National Park, and Death Valley. Witnessing the night sky in those areas made me realize how dark and expansive the night sky could really be, and potentially how few people have seen it at its full potential.
While planning my photography trips this past summer, I often consulted a light pollution map to help determine ideal locations for my shots, which made me realize just how far I would need to drive to find a relatively dark sky. And as you can see from the link above, the rampant light pollution in Massachusetts forced me to make drives a minimum of 2 to 3 hours long to even begin escaping the glow of nearby cities and towns.
As an example of how light pollution affects our view of the night sky, take the image of the Milky Way posted above. I took this shot from the beach in Truro, Massachusetts near the tip of Cape Cod looking to the southwest over the dark, undeveloped Cape Cod Bay. Regardless, the lights from the town of Barnstable and Bourne, which lie 30 miles away from Truro, produced a yellow glow bright enough to spill into the core of the Milky Way and wash out its details. Even the porch lights from the rows of beach houses behind me were enough to ruin my view in the opposite direction. In addition, a modern digital camera can pick up much more detail in the night sky than the human eye can, so without my DSLR gathering light from the night sky 20 seconds at a time, my view after letting my eyes adjust for a half hour looked more like the image below.
The unfortunate reality is that light pollution is a direct product of population density. Those of us who live near urban areas—or even suburban areas—run the risk of having our night skies obscured by the glow of unused light. Further, light pollution has been shown to have an effect on human health, as well as disrupting sleep patterns. While it’s fair to say that artificial light will never go away in cities and towns, much more efficient designs could be used to make lighting only as bright as it needs to be, while also directing it downwards so that wasted light isn’t directed or reflected upwards to wash out the night sky. More information on this topic can be found via the International Dark Sky Association.
My photography journeys this summer have made me appreciate dark night skies even more than I already did. Driving hours from home to sit under the stars alone or with friends is something that will never fail to relax and recharge me, and I can't recommend it enough. For those who have never had the chance to see the Milky Way with your own eyes, plan a trip next summer during a new moon, go somewhere dark, look up, and enjoy.
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