Technology & Science

Lights drown out Milky Way for third of world's population

More than one-third of the world's population can no longer see the Milky Way because of man-made lights. Among those missing out on awe-inspiring Milky Way views: nearly 80 per cent of North Americans and 60 per cent of Europeans.

Nearly 80 per cent of North Americans, 60 per cent of Europeans can't see the lights

The 'Milky Way' is seen in the night sky around telescopes and camps of people over rocks in the White Desert north of the Farafra Oasis southwest of Cairo. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

More than one-third of the world's population can no longer see the Milky Way because of man-made lights.

Among those missing out on awe-inspiring Milky Way views: nearly 80 per cent of North Americans and 60 per cent of Europeans.

These are the findings of a new global atlas of light pollution, published as part of a scientific paper Friday.

More than four-fifths of Earthlings now live beneath skies polluted by artificial light, which blocks out the Milky Way for more than a third of them, according to the research.

The Milky Way is the galaxy that holds our solar system. When parts of it are seen from Earth, it appears as a glowing band across the night sky.

"I hope that this atlas will finally open the eyes of people to light pollution," lead author Fabio Falchi said in a statement. He is with the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in northern Italy.

Tiny Singapore is the most light-polluted country; the entire population loses out on seeing the true night sky. Kuwait and Qatar are close runners-up. On the opposite end of the spectrum — countries whose populations are exposed to the least light pollution — are Chad, Central African Republic and Madagascar.

'Whole generations' have never seen it

Falchi and his team members warn the problem affects more than astronomers. It's profoundly altered a fundamental human experience, namely that of pondering the night sky.

Co-author Christopher Elvidge, a scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers for Environmental Information in Boulder, Colo., bemoans the fact that "whole generations" of North Americans have never seen the Milky Way.

"It's a big part of our connection to the cosmos — and it's been lost," he said in a statement.

The situation is even worse for some animals. Artificial light can confuse insects, birds and sea turtles, with deadly results. There's also the waste of energy and money, the researchers point out.

The U.S. National Park Service's Dan Duriscoe, a co-author, noted that some national parks in the West like Yellowstone are among the last refuges of darkness in the U.S. Urban light a few hundred miles away or more can spoil nighttime vistas, even in pristine federal land like Death Valley National Park in Southern California.

The report — which appears in the journal Science Advances — is based on new satellite data and special software.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now