By Anne McDarris
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Doug Lively of the Raleigh Astronomy Club could peer through the lens of his telescope and see the Whirlpool Galaxy in rich detail. The galaxy was clean and symmetrical, a pretty silver spiral that looked like a glow-in-the-dark ceiling sticker. Lively could see one of its wispy arms reaching for the unassuming blob of its sister galaxy, M5195, and the details of the dust bridge between the two galaxies.
Now, on a wintery evening along the edge of Jordan Lake, Lively squints through his telescope lens at the Whirlpool Galaxy and M5195. The thin spirals look fuzzy and faded. He can’t see the dust bridge. Newborn stars — which aren’t so new anymore because the light traveled for 25 million years to reach Lively’s eye — are only suggestions.
He sighs. The light pollution is getting worse.
He can see it in the same way that the lights of Raleigh, Durham and Apex burn like suns pinned just below the horizon, a sunset that never fades. The way that they cast a white-orange fog that dims the starlight, the light of the Whirlpool Galaxy and its sister.
Light pollution, the bane of Lively and the Raleigh Astronomy Club, is the result of undirected light from artificial sources like streetlamps and buildings. The light reflects off clouds and small particles in the atmosphere, which creates a hazy glow that obstructs the view of the stars. For the past two decades, this has become a problem for North Carolina astronomers as people have flooded into the area seeking jobs and high living standards.
Mass migration carries quiet consequences.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Durham County grew by 16 people per day while Wake County grew by 67 people per day in 2016. With this mass migration into central North Carolina comes more roads, developments and lights that illuminate those places at night. This growth carries quiet consequences.
“I’ll never forget that night that the mall over there in Durham… completely obliterated our northern horizon,” Lively said, referring to the Streets at Southpoint, which opened in 2002. “Objects that are in the northern sky that you could see really well, it’s pretty well washed-out now.”
New development isn’t the only source of light pollution — LED lights have wreaked havoc on the night sky. While great for energy efficiency and city budgets, blindingly bright LEDs are terrible for light pollution. And because they’re cheap, some cities overlight areas because they can afford to, despite studies showing that more lights do not always mean less crime.
The crux of the matter is using light efficiently and taking advantage of the technology we have. It’s addressing light design more than light usage.
Although many cities have developed lighting ordinances that decrease inefficiencies, they’re not exhaustive. In Raleigh, the lighting ordinance does not affect streetlights, a major source of light pollution. This means that these lights do not need to be shielded like many others do and can shine in all directions — even up.
Our health is at risk, too.
Light pollution doesn’t just affect astronomers — it can affect the health of city dwellers across the globe. In large cities like Hong Kong and New York City where night is more like twilight, residents have decreased levels of melatonin production, a regulatory hormone that the body produces at night. Scientists have linked low levels of melatonin to breast cancer. Light pollution also messes with the circadian rhythm, and the inconsistent ticking of the biological clock is linked to depression, cardiovascular disease and insomnia.
Many aspects of environmental change can feel intangible, seen only through long-range reports and scientists’ earnest articles and lectures. Melting glaciers and desertification are far-off issues that plague a minority. But with light pollution, the change is something that people can observe in their lifetimes. It’s something that affects our health and our ability to look at the stars. To see it, all that a person has to do is look up.
Amy Sayle knows this all too well. An educator for the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, Sayle teaches about the night sky under a dome of virtual stars. There is a light pollution feature that she can turn on during shows, and when she turns it off, people gasp and murmur at the difference.
“Lots of people have never seen a truly dark sky, but a lot of people don’t realize it,” she said. “They think they’ve seen a very dark sky but don’t even know what one looks like because there are so few places that are not light polluted anymore.”
But Sayle has found one of those few places in Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah, where she volunteers at its annual astronomy festival.
“It’s pretty darn close to a perfect sky,” she said. “It’s dark. It’s amazing.”
One night, she forgot her flashlight in her cabin when she went to go to the bathroom. She tried to walk along the paved road that curves around the campsite. She knew the area — she had come to this event 12 years in a row. But in the consuming darkness without a light, she stumbled into a ditch, reoriented herself, walked a few more feet and then smacked into a tree. When she found the bathroom, she gravitated toward the light, relieved.
Light pollution continues its tour of the U.S.
On a recent data collection trip to Bryce Canyon, Chad Moore, the head of the National Park Service Night Sky Team, showed Sayle the new map of light pollution in the area. There appeared to be some detectable from Las Vegas, Nevada.
Las Vegas is 270 miles away.
“It’s just one of those things that I think is just thoughtlessness,” Sayle said. “Taking care of light pollution is a win-win-win-win-win situation.”
Sayle said astronomy is one way to get people interested in science and how it works.
“To be an informed citizen in a democracy, you have to understand how science works,” she said.
Far from Bryce Canyon, the Raleigh Astronomy Club continues to go to Jordan Lake, even as the glow creeps closer with each passing year. They’ve seen the light pollution maps. They know it’s only getting worse.
“At least for the next 10 years, we’re going to continue to use Jordan Lake, unless it gets absolutely bad,” Lively said. “Probably the next place we could go would be north up around Castalia, Rocky Mount and Medoc Mountain State Park.”
Medoc Mountain is just under a two-hour drive from Jordan Lake. It’s a long way to go for dark skies. And like Jordan Lake, it’s not immune to the creeping fingers of light pollution.
So they grit their teeth. They bear it. They don’t have much of a choice.
Edited by Adam Phan