Before slowly started to bathe the world in a
Before the world became lit up by artificial lights, the only light mankind had was provided by the sun, the moon, and the stars. Eventually man harnessed fire. This development was revolutionary because in the dark, the unknown lurked. Predators waited just outside the field of view. Dangers were everywhere. Fear was king. But when the early hominids learned how to make and control fire, they became masters of the dark, and by extension, their fears.
But as soon as they realized they had the upper hand in the battle against darkness, light pollution began. It started off modestly, but it quickly grew. The technological revolutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s slowly started to bathe the world in a new virus, light, but in the process, it blocked out what had awed mankind for millennia: the night sky.
This has become so bad today that children may react in fear to just pinpricks of light at a planetarium, something that will certainly not hurt them but is also entirely unknown to them. In fact, it is estimated that eight out of ten children born today will never see the Milky Way, according to a 2013 interview Venue did with Paul Bogard
These young children’s capability to see the night sky is being ruined by light pollution, which is the excessive use of artificial light in the night sky, with sources most commonly being building lights, billboards, and streetlights. Composed of glare, light trespass, and clutter, light pollution can be seen at its worst in large cities. While it may not sound as bad as its cousins, air, water, and land pollution, light pollution can do some pretty nasty damage on its own.
Briefly, light pollution has a number of negative impacts, such as increasing energy consumption, disrupting ecosystems and wildlife, disrupting human health, and affecting crime and safety. Out of these, disruption of ecosystems and human health are the most significant. Artificial lights can wreak havoc for nocturnal animals and many bird species, to the point where millions of birds fly into buildings and die needless deaths while at night.
Regarding human health, light pollution is most responsible for the disruption of the human circadian rhythm, the biological clock that governs sleep-wake cycles. Even in the house, it still affects people, where light from phone screens suppress melatonin production, making it more difficult to have a healthy night of sleep. Even when every light in the entire house is turned off, LED’s are still visible, whether internet routers or cell phone notification lights.
Dr. Steve Zigler, a photographer who has traveled around the world perfecting his craft, has had plenty of experience shooting the sky. He traveled to Wyoming in August to photograph the 2017 total eclipse and has seen the effects of light pollution itself. He explains that when one looks at a map of light pollution in the United States, half of the country is covered in light, giving it a frightening comparison to another problem the world is faced with: extinction.
“If night skies, dark night skies, were animals,” Zigler warned, “they would be on the endangered species list.”
While photography is not his primary profession, light pollution is still hurting his work as it limits where he can go take pictures. On his website, the “night” section of his portfolio is full of pictures taken in places like Death Valley and the Himalayas. While he lives in East Tennessee, he is unable to take high-quality night sky pictures due to the abundance of light pollution in the region. On his website, there are several nighttime shots that look like the sun is coming up in the distance, but actually, the mound of light on the horizon is light pollution from nearby towns.
Due to the rarity of areas free of light pollution in the Eastern United States, it can be hard to find a place to stargaze. While people can download applications on their phone that have maps showing dark areas, there is always the danger that the information may be false or outdated. However, a recent project started by the University of Tennessee’s Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment might be able to change that, at least for those in Appalachia.
The Appalachian Dark Skies Network is a project that is currently trying to build a network of all of the region’s dark-sky destinations, night-sky supporters, along with other people who depend on dark-skies, such as telescope manufacturers and colleges that teach astronomy. As there are a number of areas in the Appalachian Mountain region marketing themselves as dark-sky destinations, the project aims to build better communication between the sites, as there has been little to none prior to the project.
Dr. Tim Ezzell, leader of the project, reported that in the year it has existed, the Appalachian Dark Skies Network has developed a database of over 550 regional groups and destinations, made up of astronomy clubs, planetariums, and state, local, and national parks. After making up this list, Ezzell and other team members worked to see if there is an economic market for dark-sky visitors who might travel a long distance in order to see the heavenly bodies.
When the team presented its findings from the first year of the project, they reported that “state parks appear to form the backbone of the dark skies landscape.” This seems to be true when considering the location of the various levels of parks in the Appalachian region, as many of the national parks in the region are close to populated cities. If a study was done looking at the Western United States, it would be interesting to see if the findings are similar.
While Tennessee has its fair share of wilderness areas, there are actually not many places in the state where astronomers can see the heavenly bodies, with the naked eye alone, that are visible in dark-sky areas. Even the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is prone to light pollution from its surrounding communities.
With the threat of artificial light coming from park facilities, visitors, and domes of light on the horizon from bright cities, the National Park is taking steps to measure the quality of darkness and how it can be improved. But, unfortunately, the Park does not currently have much data on how light pollution is affecting it. Some of the concerns that the Park does have involve the use of flashlights during the firefly program at Elkmont and the potential that lights may disrupt the movement of the Park’s wildlife.
However, a park just west of Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area can provide the clear skies amateur astronomers are looking for.
In 2015, the International Dark-Sky Association named Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, located near Jamestown, Tennessee, as the first state park in the Southeast to be certified as a dark-sky viewing location. Named after the Civilian Conservation Corps who helped develop it, the park was chosen as the location of the park when rangers realized that the park was the darkest state park in Tennessee. Originally, Frozen Head State Park, located near Wartburg, Tennessee, was going to be the location of the park. Along with nearby Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area, the two were named a Silver-tier International Dark-Sky Park for their resolve to preserve the untouched magnificence of the night sky. Together, the two were named Pickett-Pogue International Dark-Sky Park.
Michael Hodge, a ranger at Pickett State Park, has been working at the park since April. Besides his duties as a ranger, he does a lot of outreach and programming regarding the park’s status as a dark-sky park. In the future, he plans to start a monthly dark-sky viewing event for people to come and view the various objects in the sky, either with the naked eye or through telescopes. In fact, Hodge’s wife was key in getting the park established as a dark-sky park.
According to the International Dark-Sky Association website, a dark-sky park is a “public or private land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage. and/or public enjoyment.”
While the term “dark-sky” implies a certain caliber of darkness to be expected, there is actually a scale that is used to determine just how dark these areas actually are. Created by amateur astronomer John E. Bortle, the Bortle Sky Scale is a nine-level numeric scale that measures the brightness of the night sky in a particular location using special equipment, with one being an inky-black darkness where a large variety of objects are visible. The Pickett-Pogue International Dark-Sky Park is ranked a Bortle Class 3 sky, meaning it is a more akin to a rural sky. At Pickett-Pogue, a clear night can bring naked-eye views of the Milky Way and meteors, as well as globular clusters such as M4, M5, and M22.
In order for a location to be designated as a dark-sky park, it has to meet a number of strict criteria set forth by the IDA, such as maintaining lighting guidelines (such as shielding street and parking lot lights downwards) and doing light pollution readings with a piece of equipment called a Unihedron Sky Quality Meter, a device which measures the amount of light in a given section of sky.
While there are obvious benefits of having little to no light pollution, Pickett State Park has an interesting benefit that most people would never think of. It involves glowworms. Living in rock shelters around the park, Pickett’s glowworms rely on darkness to attract their prey, giving off blue lights in the darkness of the caves. While Hodge said it was only a theory, scientists believe that the worms mimic starlight, so that insects come into the shelters, become disoriented, and get trapped in the worms’ webs.
While Pickett State Park takes measures to maintain its status as a dark-sky park, Hodge wants people to know one thing about the park.
“One thing that we always try to get across to people is we’re not opposed to lights,” Hodge says,” but there’s a smart way to do it . . . If you do the shielded lights, you can use less energy because you’re not just throwing it out everywhere; you’re putting it where you need it.”
While light pollution and dark-sky projects in East Tennessee have been discussed, a larger question remains, one that warrants even more discussion and research: Why does light pollution exist? While it can possibly be attributed to our innate fear of the dark and unknown, this question has the potential to inspire people to question their own light use and whether it is really necessary. But by answering this question, another answer becomes clear: how important light pollution is in our lives. By realizing that, society might go looking for the stars again, and one day, they might even find them.