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The Night Sky and Light Pollution - What Happened to the Milky Way?

Stephanie, her hubby, and their two cats enjoy living and traveling full-time in their RV, often camping off-grid to stretch their budget.

Night Sky

Night Sky by Dave Young.

Night Sky by Dave Young.

Have You Seen the Milky Way?

Do you remember going outdoors on a clear winter night and seeing the brilliant star-studded sky? Or lying on a blanket in the summer with your best friend and identifying the constellations? You could see the Milky Way leaving a creamy streak across the sky with twinkling stars everywhere. Have you looked up at the sky lately? Chances are, unless you live in a very unpopulated area, you won't see the Milky Way because light pollution in the U.S. has made it invisible in about two thirds of the country.

Do you remember the star-studded sky?

Growing up in the country in rural New Jersey, I remember coming home from the movies late at night and seeing the incredible night sky. When we came to our house, there was no porch light on, and chances were that you didn't really need a light because the moon and the stars provided enough light to find our way to the door. Although our neighbors weren't close, none of them had halogen lights in their yards or security spotlights lighting up every corner of their house and shining like beacons into the air. Now and then someone left a porch light on, but it was low light, just enough to light the steps and the front door.

Today, it's common for every house to have bright lights lighting up their driveways, porches and lawns all night long. Even without street lights, it would be easy to see your way through the average housing development by the light of the burning lights on each house.

When you drive out to the country where there are no houses, you'll likely see the glow from nearby towns, cities, football fields, malls and car dealerships lighting up the night sky. You may see a few of the brightest stars, but it's unlikely that you'll actually see the Milky Way.

It's sad to think of our children growing up and never actually seeing the beautiful night sky that we enjoyed from our back yards. Unless they are lucky enough to go camping in a National Park or in some remote region, the light pollution will obscure much of the beauty of the night sky.

Snow Geese Migrating

Snow Geese during migration.

Snow Geese during migration.

Light Pollution Disrupts Nature

Light pollution is not only annoying for those who love to enjoy the beauty of the night sky. Biologists and ecological groups say that the glow emanating from cities and suburbs disrupts the biological rhythms of wildlife and can interfere with the behavior of nocturnal animals.

Video of Baby Sea Turtles Hatching

Light Pollution as Seen From Space

Light pollution as seen from space.

Light pollution as seen from space.

Light pollution that occurs at unnatural times and places can have a dire effect on animals. In an article for the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a collaboration of scientists, biologists and ecologists showed that false cues from polarized, or reflected light, can trigger animals to make mistakes that can cause injury and even death.

Light Pollution Harms Sea Turtles, Migrating Birds and Other Wildlife

In one example, baby sea turtles use reflected light from the ocean as a beacon to head to the sea. When there are bright street lights on the shore, the turtles can migrate the wrong way and die. Many birds, insects and animals can mistake urban lights reflecting off dark shiny horizontal surfaces for natural moon or starlight reflecting off water. This can cause them to make deadly mistakes in laying eggs, nesting or migration.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that four to five million migrating birds die each year because the are disoriented by bright lights on tall buildings.

The term scotobiology describes the study of biology as directly and specifically affected by darkness. Scientists have found that many organisms require periods of darkness in order to function naturally. Even short periods of bright light interrupting the required dark period can prevent some plants and animals from behaving in the required manner. Light pollution can interfere with breeding, control flowering in plants and affect winter dormancy. In humans, it can effect the immune system.

Telescope for Viewing Night Sky

The Cost of Light Pollution

Cost of light pollution in the U.S.: $10 Billion annualy.

Cost to individual households of outdoor lights left on from dusk to dawn:

  • One 150 watt incandescent bulbwill cost $66.99 if run from dusk to dawn.
  • One quartz halogen 500 watt bulb will cost $209.54/year.
  • One quartz halogen 1000 watt bulb will cost $$419/year.
  • One Mercury Vapor light will cost $419 a year.
  • One 100 watt incandescent bulb will cost 62.86 a year.
  • One Compact Flurescent (CFL) will cost $17.60 a year.
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*Note: Calculations were based on a national average of 10.5¢ per kilowatt hour.

Light Pollution Affects Humans

Recent studies in humans has found that light at night interferes with natural circadian rhythms. Light at night has even been found to interfere with natural circadian rhythms and the human body's internal clock claims an article published by the Journal of Neuroscience. In an article by Davis S, Mirick DK, Stevens RG. in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute entitled Night Shift Work, Light at Night, and Risk of Breast Cancer, researchers found that light at night suppressed the production of melatonin and increased the risk of breast cancer.

It has been shown that the absence of darkness at night contributes to insomnia and restless sleep. This can also cause increased stress levels and health problems that are associated with stress.

What You Can Do to Reduce Light Pollution

  • Turn off lights when they’re not needed.
  • Use outdoor lights only when they’re needed.
  • Use lower wattage bulbs.
  • Use solar powered walkway lights to light walkways and stairs.
  • Outdoor light fixtures should direct light downward, at less than a 90° angle. Install only full cut-ff fixtures that direct light to the ground where it’s needed rather that upwards.
  • Reduce light trespass by ensuring that your lights do not light up your neighbor's yard or shine on his house.
  • Install motion detectors on security lights rather than have them on all the time.

Light Pollution Stealing Night Sky

Community Efforts

What Happened To The Milky Way?

We can blame light pollution on city lights and lights of shopping malls and car dealerships, but it isn't just that. Every light that we shine into the sky contributes to the light pollution of our planet.

Light Pollution is My Pet Peeve!

As an RVer and camper, light pollution is one of my biggest pet peeves. Just when you think you are leading a life that brings you closer to nature, you park next to someone who leaves spotlights on all night or pull into a campground with street lights as bright as day.

At our home base in a quiet little cul-de-sac off the beaten path, a few neighbors have installed halogen lights on every corner of their house that light up the whole street. Unshaded porch lights are commonly left on all night, and it's impossible to sit outside on our porch at night without being blinded by glare from someone's lights. It's little wonder that the environment is harmed by these lights - I know I hate them!

Proper Use of Lights Can Reduce Light Pollution

Of course, no one expects everyone to shut off all their lights, but there are simple things you can do to reduce light pollution. Use hooded light fixtures that point light down where it's needed rather that into the air or at the neighbor's house. Use lower wattage bulbs. Turn off lights when they're not needed. Be aware of what your lights are doing. See shaded box at right for more tips.

Because of light pollution two thirds of the U.S. population can't see the Milky Way. One porch light isn't going to mean that much, but millions of lights, porch lights and security lights, street lights, flood lights, parking lot lights, business sign lights - they all add up to light pollution that affects our environment and ruins our enjoyment of the night sky.

Is it worth it to you?

The Milky Way as Seen From Death Valley National Park

Milky Way photo take at Death Valley Nation Park.

Milky Way photo take at Death Valley Nation Park.

Light Pollution Poll

  • IDAHome
    The mission of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting.
  • Lighting Cost Calculator
    Find out what that light costs you to operate and find out if you could save by switching to another type of lighting.
  • Night Shift Work, Light at Night, and Risk of Breast Cancer
    By Scott Davis, Dana K. Mirick and Richard G. Stevens. Exposure to light at night may increase the risk of breast cancer by suppressing the normal nocturnal production of melatonin by the pineal gland, which, in turn, could increase the
  • Light pollution - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    This article explores various aspects of light pollution world-wide.
  • Light Pollution: Causes and Cures
    Light pollution has caused a severe decrease in the visibility of the night sky. Check how much and find out what you can do about it.

© 2011 Stephanie Henkel

What Are Your Thoughts on Light Pollution? Leave comments here:

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 07, 2013:

tillsontitan - Thanks so much for stopping by to read and comment on my article. We all miss out when we don't take the time to appreciate the night sky.

Mary Craig from New York on October 07, 2013:

We don't often think of the consequences of our actions on nature. Our outside light is motion activated but you have to be pretty close to set it off. We love to sit in the backyard and look at the stars.

Thanks for the warnings and reminders.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 05, 2013:

Mike Robbers - Thanks so much for your comments and for sharing my article. We are currently camping in New Mexico where the night sky is just beautiful. It's a view that we never see on the east coast of North Carolina because of the obsession with lights everywhere. I feel sad for those who grow up never seeing the beautiful Milky Way!

Mike Robbers from London on October 05, 2013:

Wonderful hub Stephanie and so very true points! I think every time I travel to a rural area the greatest spectacle i wait to see in the night sky and then you fully realize the problem of light pollution. Voted and shared!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on January 25, 2013:

Light pollution has been a pet peeve of mine for many years, and I absolutely bright lights that obliterate the beautiful night skies. It seems that so many birds and animals are negatively affected by light pollution, but so little is done about it - at least where I live. Thanks for sharing my hub on your puffin page!

Yvonne Spence from UK on January 25, 2013:

We saw the Milky Way in all its glory almost 4 years ago at an observatory in Chile where there was no light pollution and thin atmosphere. We were awestruck. You are absolutely right that light pollution is an issue - baby puffins are affected by it in a similar way to turtles.

Voted up, pinned and shared on my FB page dedicated to puffins!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 27, 2011:

DzyMsLizzy - I'm one of those people who can't sleep if there are lights. It must be from growing up in the country where the only light at night was the moon shining in the window (and even that would keep me awake if it was too bright!). I do love to see the night sky when we're far from urban lights! Thanks so much for your comments and for visiting my hub!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on October 27, 2011:

My goodness, but you are so right! I have thought about it often, in less specific terms, but I do remember being able to see the Milky Way, at least when out camping. (I grew up in San Francisco, so I doubt it was ever very visible there.)

Even so, I never thought about the harm that could be caused to wildlife or plant cycles, as local 'light pollution' doesn't seem that overwhelmingly's not as if the sun is shining--you cannot read by it.

Insomnia? Yes, I have it, but from other causes (like stress--and who is not stressed in this economy?). Light has never kept me from sleeping if I'm tired. I can fall asleep outdoors at high noon, or in a room with all the lights on.

Great job--very informative. Voted up, interesting and useful.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 27, 2011:

Davenmidtown - How lucky you were to have someone knowledgeable teach you about the night sky! I know very little about astronomy, but can imagine how frustrating the far ranging light pollution is for those who study the skies. Thanks for your comments!

NMlady - We have camped and visited New Mexico several times, and love it more each time! It's a beautiful and diverse place. Thanks for visiting my hub and for your comments!

Molometer -'ve discovered my lack of knowledge about astronomy! But, on the populated east coast of the U.S., the Milky Way is not visible, even when it should be visible...

I appreciate your stopping in to leave feedback.

Micheal from United Kingdom on October 27, 2011:

Hi Stephanie,

I think you will find that the milky way has moved out of the night sky at the moment because of the orbital position we are in at this time of year. It's still there just not visible from the Northern hemisphere.

Hope this helps.

Doesn't help with the light pollution issues that you raised though.

NMLady from New Mexico & Arizona on October 27, 2011:

When we first moved to New Mexico we were stunned by the view of the night sky.

The VLA (Very Large Array) telescope/sound is on the plains of NM due to our having very little light pollution.

This is a great place to live!

David Stillwell from Sacramento, California on October 27, 2011:

This is really a great article! My mother was an astronomer and we grew up studying the sky. It is very difficult to see it anymore because of all the lights. It is something that I miss a great deal. Voted up and sharing.

rollsany on October 24, 2011:

Some motion detectors can be set to block out small animal movement

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 23, 2011:

Movie Master - The money spent on wasted light is incredible! In these times of economic downturn, it would surely make sense for companies to reevaluate their lighting. Thanks you for your support and your comments!

Movie Master from United Kingdom on October 23, 2011:

Hi Stephanie, I am so with you on this one, I hate to see lights left on for no reason, people and companies do it all the time.

Great hub, thank you for this information, best wishes MM

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 23, 2011:

Attikos -

Thank you for pointing out one of the areas of resistance to reduced lighting. While the motives behind some of the causes of light pollution are valid, the method of solving the problems are off base. Security lighting that shines into the sky is wasted light and actually does not light the ground as well as it should. When lights are hooded to direct the light downward, the areas needing lighting are better lit and less sky glow is created.

Some motion detectors can be set to block out small animal movement, but I can see your point on that issue. However, security lights that are hooded to prevent light shining upward are still effective. More efficient lighting would go a long way to reducing light pollution.

Thanks for leaving your thoughts on this issue.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 23, 2011:

BJcreative -

It's sad to see the night sky disappearing in our lifetime. Wasted light contributes to the problem of light pollution in countless ways costing us much more than the loss of the night sky. It costs us in dollars and cents, it affects birds and wildlife negatively and it is affecting human health.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience and for your comments!

Attikos from East Cackalacky on October 23, 2011:

We should recognize that there are powerful motives behind light pollution. Crime is a leading one; its rates go down as illumination goes up. Safety is another; elderly people especially insist upon, and need, strong exterior lighting so they can move around at night. In much of the world, including my corner of it, motion switches don't work because nocturnal animals are always triggering them; the lights stay on most of the time anyway. These issues and more must be effectively addressed in order to reduce lighting levels.

BkCreative from Brooklyn, New York City on October 22, 2011:

How well I remember the night sky as a child - over 50 years ago. Even in NYC. My mother and I would often look out the window and it was breathtaking.

Those days are gone - the amount of light pollution in NYC is staggering (not to mention wasteful). Tall city buildings have lights that burn all night long - I suppose this is to make sure birds fly into the building because what other reason would justify this.

We have so totally disrupted nature but yet we will argue about our rights and our needs - every other animal be darned.

Why can't we do like other countries and use motion detectors. If someone approaches your property the light will come on. But at night here in NYC neighbors and street lamps burn all night - and I can move around my home without turning on the lights because it is so bright in here.

Thanks so much for a brilliant article on such an important topic.

Rated up.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 22, 2011:

Hi Gail,

I'm glad to know that communities near sea turtle nesting sites are aware of the dangers of night lights to the newly hatched turtles. It must be quite a thing to see them hatching!

I was surprised at the cost of high wattage halogen lights, though I'm not sure what the wattage is for those used by home owners. I'm glad that you found the information useful, and thank you for sharing your comments here.

I'm heading over to your new Anniversary hub right now!

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on October 22, 2011:

What a useful informative hub about a topic I never really thought about before except when vacationing in Hilton Head Island where they forbid any night lights when the sea turtles are hatching.

I also didn't realize how much it costs to keep an outdoor light on from dusk to dawn. We use light sensors on our outdoor halogen lights but do keep our front light on sometimes. Thanks for sharing this information. I'm sure it will make many think twice about how they use outdoor lights.

BTW, I published Part 2 of my anniversary series and you are featured in it as a hubber who shares information with others.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 22, 2011:

Diogenes - I'm not sure I'd want to live without electricity, but we could definitely cut back on our use of it. Since we sometimes spend several months in our RV living in the desert without electricity, I'm definitely more aware of the difference between waste and necessity.

You make a point about people spending so much of their incomes on lights and heat. In tough times like this, it's worth while to be aware of how much those extra outdoor and indoor lights are costing us! Some houses I've seen with floodlights lighting up their homes and landscapes from every angle could be spending a couple of thousand dollars a year just on outdoor lights. And those cities that are in financial trouble...turn down the lights!

Baja sounds like a paradise! I hope to visit one day...perhaps you be there on the beach enjoying a campfire and the starry night...

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 22, 2011:

Point2Make - Light pollution seems to have crept up on us until, for many people, it's just part of life. When we started camping in National Parks in the Southwest and Western states, I realized what we had been missing by living in the East. But the more I learn about light pollution, the more I realize that it's not just the beauty of the night sky that we're destroying.

As an amateur astronomer, it must be especially frustrating for you! Astrophotography sounds fascinating, and I understand that there are still a few places, like Death Vally and some other National Parks, where you can still photograph the Milky Way. But it's sad that we have to sometimes travel long distances to see something that used to be ours just looking into the night sky wherever we happened to be.

I see that some cities and towns are making an effort to reduce the sky glow, but I imagine that there would be a lot of resistance to it as many people are convinced that the more light there is, the better it is.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on light pollution.

diogenes on October 22, 2011:

A true article. I often yearn for a life without electric light, perhaps as it was with fires, candles and even gas-light. I have never seen the panolpy of stars in the UK; people here spend 1/3 of their income on light and heat. I used to live in a tiny village in Baja with all the stars revealed at night, plus the glow of our own gaklaxy. Modern life stinks...Bob

point2make on October 21, 2011:

As an amateur astronomer I have had a lot of experiences with light pollution. The truth is that I seldom bring out the telescope anymore. I have, lately, switched to binoculars because the local light pollution has greatly affected the telescope's performance. I have also had to curtail my astrophotography sessions because the skyglow washes out much of my work.

I can still remember a time when the night sky was glorious. You could watch the Milky Way spread from horizon to horizon and picking out several nebula with the naked eye was still possible. It's very difficult to find dark skies anymore to duplicate those views.

Great hub Stephanie! Light pollution is a real problem that needs to be addressed

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 21, 2011:

Attikos- You don't know how many times I've been tempted to shoot out lights! But I don't. So far...

I don't hesitate to ask neighbors to shut off their lights at night if they are "light trespassing," though. Thanks for stopping by to read my hub and comment!

Attikos from East Cackalacky on October 21, 2011:

Well, what I do is keep lighting in my house to a minimum and procrastinate on reporting parking lot lights that are out. I have yet to resort to shooting out streetlights, but I guess that's next.

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