Today Less Than a Third of Humanity Can See the Milky Way — And That’s a Problem

June 10, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Night scene of New York City from the Rockefeller Center
Photo credit: Mack Male/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Light pollution is “profoundly altering a fundamental human experience.”

Tonight, if you were to head outside and look up to the sky (given it’s a relatively cloud-free night), would you be able to see the Milky Way? Any stars?

If you aren’t able to see the twinkling of stars, you are not alone. It’s due to light pollution. Today (June 11), the “New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness,” was published in the journal Science Advances. It documents how much of the world is illuminated by an artificial glow.

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Researchers from Italy, Germany, the USA, and Israel conducted the study, which was led by Fabio Falchi from the Italian Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute. The authors examined the G20 countries, and found that in terms of area, Italy and South Korea are the most polluted, while Canada and Australia are the least. Overall, 80 percent of the world, and more than 99 percent of the US and Europe, live under light-polluted skies.

World map of artificial sky brightness

World map of artificial sky brightness, shown as a ratio to the natural sky brightness. Photo credit: Fabio Falchi et. al

Caption: World map of artificial sky brightness, shown as a ratio to the natural sky brightness.

Not only is light pollution a nuisance to astronomers, according to the researchers, it is "profoundly altering a fundamental human experience — the opportunity for each person to view and ponder the sky above."

Even small increases in night brightness can degrade this experience, and that is a big problem because humanity is "on the cusp of a worldwide transition to LED technology" explained Falchi in a press release. "Unless careful consideration is given to LED color and lighting levels, this transition could unfortunately lead to a 2-3 fold increase in skyglow on clear nights."

What’s more, the brighter nights also affect nocturnal species and their ecosystems.

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According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the widespread use of outdoor light at night, which has occurred relatively recently, has radically disrupted key survival behaviors of wildlife, such as breeding, navigation, and foraging strategies.

It is because of the growing threat of light pollution that groups in the US, including The International Dark-Sky Associated, Grand Canyon Association, National Park Service, and Center for Biological Diversity are committed to protecting national dark sky resources.

The Grand Canyon National Park, located in the Arizona, was recently given IDA accreditation, but it doesn’t stop there. A new proposal, called the Grand Canyon National Monument, which is supported by 80 percent of Arizona voters, tribal nationals and communities in Arizona, numerous conservation organizations, local business, and elected representatives, hopes to protect an additional 1.7 million acres.

Katie Davis of the Center for Biological Diversity explained in a separate press release, “to protect wildlife, we must protect wild places and the dark skies that stretch above them.”

You can check out this interactive light pollution map to find out where you have to go to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.

Read next: The Grand Canyon Was Just Designated a Dark Sky Park

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