In West Texas, seeing the Milky Way is as common as seeing a cactus. But one-third of the world lives under a sky too light-polluted to see it. [Credit: NPS/L. Bartsch | Public domain]
I first saw the Milky Way when I was 11 years old. My parents dragged my sisters and me out to Big Bend National Park in West Texas for our first real camping trip. No bathrooms, no pavement, no electricity. No other people in sight.
I did not want to be there. The desert was hot and dusty. I thought the low hills peppered with cacti and scraggly shrubs were hideous. But then the sun set, and the stars came out.
I had never seen so many stars in my life. Every corner of the giant sky was filled with them: some bright and steady, others dim and flickering.
My uncle pointed out a hazy white streak and told us it was the Milky Way. The night was so dark and the sky was so clear that I could see one of the milky tentacles of our galaxy, all while our planet was nestled in another arm, thousands of light years away.
I felt something tighten in my gut: I was small and didn’t matter but was connected to something that mattered so much.
My family sat in our fabric folding chairs, bundled up (because now the desert was cold and dusty) with our heads tilted back toward the sky. My uncle taught my sisters and me the names of some constellations and pointed out satellites: blinking dots that looked like stars but slowly trekked across the sky. When one of us spotted a shooting star, we shouted “Shooter!” and everyone else scrambled to glimpse it before it vanished.
I was lucky enough to visit Big Bend a dozen more times as I grew up, and each time I tried to hoard away how the stars made me feel so I could access it later. I knew I wouldn’t get to really see them again until I headed back to the wilderness.
But many children don’t ever get to see the stars.
Eighty percent of the world population lives under a light-polluted sky, according to a night sky brightness atlas published in 2016. For one-third of the population, the pollution is so severe that they can’t see the Milky Way at all. In North America, that proportion is nearly 80%. And each year, the sky grows brighter.
That’s a problem. Light pollution harms ecosystems by killing birds, disrupting migrations, and impeding turtle nesting, but it also disconnects humanity from an essential part of who we are.
The night sky is threaded through the culture of civilizations across the globe and throughout history. Constellations were woven into Greek, Aztec, Māori, and many other mythologies. Observing the stars and planets enabled Galileo to transform our view of the universe. References to the stars can be found in literature ranging from Dante to Shakespeare to Cormac McCarthy.
Not everyone who looks up at the stars will write a sonnet that’s enshrined in our literary canon, or make an observation that leads to a scientific revolution. But everyone deserves to witness the beauty of our sky.
Researchers, nonprofits groups, and citizens are working to limit light pollution, but the fruit of their efforts is not enjoyed by the average urban dweller. For example, The International Dark Sky Association fights to create and protect dark sky sanctuaries. But most of those sanctuaries are in remote or rural locations, and in the U.S. they are concentrated in the West. People who live in cities, particularly on the East Coast, don’t have easy access.
In Texas, my parents were able to take time off work and drive their family eight hours into the desert. Other families don’t have that privilege, and other areas of the country don’t have such close access to a dark sky.
For example, the closest dark sky park to New York City is Cherry Springs State Park in Northern Pennsylvania — over a five-hour drive away, and not accessible by public transportation. And more than half of households in New York City don’t own a car, according to the National Equity Atlas.
Many aspects of nature can be enjoyed in a city. You can hike in Los Angeles, you can kayak in Austin, you can stroll through a bird sanctuary in Chicago. You can even take the subway to a wildlife refuge in New York City. But you can’t go stargazing. In order for every person to gain access to a dark sky, we need to chip away at the light pollution in our cities, too.
One way to cut back on runaway light is to switch to outdoor lighting with a full shield or cutoff, so light is directed only where it is needed and doesn’t shine up and out into the sky. Other interventions include installing motion detectors so lights only turn on when needed, closing curtains to contain indoor light, and swapping cool-tone bulbs for warm-tone.
The New York City sky is never going to compete with a place like Big Bend. But reigning in the light spilling out of cities will create more accessible dark skies.
The last time I visited Texas, my sister Emme and I took a trip to her in-law’s ranch in the rural town of Yoakum. I was looking forward to spending time with my sister and catching up on my reading, but most of all I couldn’t wait to see the stars.
When night fell, I felt as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. Emme was cozy and didn’t want to go outside in the cold, but I cajoled her into joining me.
I told Emme to keep her eyes closed and guided her outside. The automatic lights switched on as we walked out to a gap in the trees. We cuddled under a blanket and stood still, waiting for them to turn off. The darkness slowly returned, and my eyes adjusted to the night. It was time.
“Okay, Emme, you can open your eyes now.” She looked up to the sky and gasped. The starry sky, our cosmic heritage, stretched over us. I pointed out the constellations our uncle taught us on that first trip to Big Bend — Orion, The Pleiades. We stood and watched and marveled until the chill drove us back indoors.
Our night carried on like any other. But we had seen the stars and felt the might of our universe, and we were restored.