Our small world orbits a star in a cosmic sea. Our Sun sails through the galaxy with over 200 billion of its siblings. This sea of stars has many names: Silver River, Lugh’s Chain, the Merchant’s Road, but its most common name is the Milky Way. It’s a delicate veil of light, astonishing in its fragility and grandeur. It’s appearance has been central to the folklore of cultures across the globe. That’s because there was a time when the Milky Way could be seen at some point of the year from anywhere in the world. But that’s no longer true.
While the Milky Way is always there, it’s also rather faint. As humanity has moved from campfires to electric lights the amount of light pollution has increased. In recent years the rise of LEDs has further reduced our view of the night sky, since the bluish color of LEDs is particularly bad in terms of light pollution. We’ve now reached the point where a third of the world can no longer see the Milky Way. In Europe more than 60% are unable to view that starry veil, and in North America it’s hidden from more than 80% of the population. A cosmic phenomena seen for millennia is now being banished from view.
It’s easy to dismiss as a minor loss unless you’ve actually seen the Milky Way with your own eyes. Anyone who has stood under a clear night sky remembers it. Its appearance is transformative. It fills you with wonder, and for years afterward you will tell the story of that time you truly saw the Milky Way. Its loss is not simply a fading of the night, it’s a disconnect from our cultural heritage. No matter where your ancestors hailed, they looked up and the great starry veil in amazement. They told stories of it, and wondered of its origin.
If you haven’t seen the Milky Way, make it a priority. Give your children an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. Make a connection to the cosmic sky that is your birthright. For if we lose it, we will be a civilization lost at sea.
Paper: Fabio Falchi, et al. The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness. Science Advances, Vol. 2, no. 6, e1600377 (2016) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600377