Our Increasingly Overlit Night Skies

In the year 2025, a seven year old girl looks up at stars against the “deep, black” night-time sky, asking her stepmother how it might be that when a child she herself once could not see their “cool, pale, glinting light,” in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, since  “‘Everyone can see them.'”  Lauren’s stepmother says but two words–“‘city lights‘”–hardly able to conjure the historical changes of her life.  “‘Lights, progress, growth, all those things we’re too hot and too poor to bother with anymore,’”  she allows.  The image of a post-apocalyptic future when stellar visibility returns is the science fiction half of a world in which increasing artificial luminosity has already removed the stars from increasing portions of mankind.  Lauren protests “there are city lights now” which don’t “hide the stars,” her stepmother only seems able to shake her head in response, trying to summon earlier skycape, and the changes of her life in succinct form, that set the scene for the post-apocalyptic world they now inhabit:  “There aren’t anywhere near as many as there were.  Kids have no idea what a blaze of lights cities used to be–and not long ago.”  Lauren tries to recuperate an even earlier sill of reading the stars by an astronomy book that once belonged to her grandmother that allows her to decipher constellations she is now able to trace, and are newly visible in the night-time sky, using its maps as the sole means to be able to glimpse the stellar order seen in the night-time skies of bygone eras.  In ways that give a new sense to “dark data,” techniques for mapping of the absence of light from an increasing share of the world suggest a new understanding of “place” that commands attention in multiple ways.

The experience of the extreme intensity of urban blazing is echoed in the quite timely appearance of an atlas of night-time space.  The use of satellite maps to chart the extent to which artificial light has come to compromise the night-time sky over the past fifteen years.  For it reveals the global scale at which the growing impact of light pollution on the diminished darkness of the night-time sky not only around once sacred areas, like Stonehenge, but stands to change our sensitivity to the perception of starlight, and experience of a non-illuminated world.   At one time, the definition of astrological constellations provided a basis to organize time, space, and prognostication, they offered natural guideposts for maritime navigation–as the girl in Parable of the Sower seems to suspect, even as she struggles with the absence of many clear keys for their interpretation.  If Butler suggested the dark future of no stars in an alternate world of the future sometime shortly before 2024, by which time the dark sky has returned,

The recession of stellar visibility is only beginning to be fully mapped, or taken account of.  The timeliness of the appearance of  with an ever-narrowing window of night-time  perception in ways the first-ever light pollution atlas of the world suggest won’t so easily return–or at least won’t return save after a similar apocalyptic massive destruction of the over-industrialized world.  The global spread of man-made light pollution is the direct consequence of living in what historian Mathew Beaumont described as “post-circadian capitalism” in 2005– a condition where work-time is no longer governed by a clock, or biological rhythms of sleep, but both flexible employment and 24-7 economies have effectively expanded the working day to a continuous job, often enabled by continuous illumination. If Beaumont, following Jonathan Crary, has seen the sleep-deprived working worlds of the globalized world that denies the value of rest–or allows one to deny it–the attempt to process the global absence of darkness demands to be grasped as evocatively as Butler began. And one is pusehd to do so by a recent collection of the diminished global levels of starlight and stellar visibility, which invites us to try to survey what a sky without stars would be.

 

 

Cartographers long measured place against the stars–navigation long determined by the north star.  But the proliferation of artificial lighting sources across much of the inhabited world increasingly obstructs an large proportion of the starry night-time sky.  The result  seems a disorientation from astronomical points of reference–as light pollution causes a deep disturbance of the ecosystems of nocturnal animals and migrating birds.  The recent appearance of such a detailed atlas of the diminishing of stellar visibility  by artificial night-sky brightness offers a detailed image of the costs of globalization we are not likely to forget without it–by tracing the atmospheric effects of what we now consider human habitation and its costs.  For although the over-illumination of much of the inhabited world has brought an artificial brightening of the night-time sky has only begun to be a subject of environmental study, the global mapping of the intensity of upward emissions across the globe will soon change the nature of the night-time sky–mapped for the first time in totality by the and the database of the Sky Quality Meter by infra-red sensing.  Such detailed high-resolution cloud-free images of the distribution of light pollution document a measure of the scale of anthropogenic change whose consequences for global ecosystems is not only aesthetic, but suggests a real watershed for the habitability of the earth akin to global warming–hence, global brightening–from which there will be no return, and a large ecological change whose consequences on birds, nocturnal life, and plants is only being begun to be understood.

The stunning distribution of declining of stellar visibility tracks an alarming increase in the spread of electric light across much of the northern hemisphere that one can only start to imagine.  The decline of stellar visibility is the direct consequence of the ubiquitous afterglow of artificial lights we naturalize as “skyglow.”  The alarming rare of the growth of nocturnal illumination that warrants concern not only for the diminished visibility of starlight in populated regions, but the remove of dark skies for the bulk of the population.  The change is not limited to humans, and will impact animal life as well as our experience of the planet–and a neglected change of human geography we are only now able adequately to map–but seems to have compromised our relation to night-time skies.  What constitutes “natural brightness” has recently been rewritten and modified by the increasing levels of diffracted light and electric afterglow that is prominently visible in most inhabited areas of the world.  Indeed, “afterglow” increasingly has come to constitute what we call the inhabited world.  And the annual pilgrimage to Stonehenge to watch the midsummer dawn seems in ways increasingly enhanced, surprisingly, by the increased failure to differentiate dark from light or day from night, tied not only to what Jonathan Crary describes as the “despoliation of sleep” in late capitalism with the rise of 24/7 markets, that maximize attempts to grow profits, but the rise of post-circadian capitalist society of post-industrial society is embedded in anthropogenic changes of the rapid increase in the effects of artificial light.

Indeed, only at select sites seem to be exempt from the spread of daylight and divorce from a sunrise-to-sundown calendar, and in these we seem to strive to regain contact with the diurnal rhythms of the past.  The number of visitors, tourists as well as druids, who flock to watch the sunrise at Stonehenge on summer solstice seem pressed by a desire to escape the tyranny of the 24-7, and the expanding of the working week and work-time in the New Economy offers few occasions for clear distinction between work- and leisure-time.  If post-industrial work and the simultaneity of information flows abandons the regimenting of work-time in 24-hour cities and ever-expanding night shifts, electrification allows increased prolongation of the workday in the nocturnal cities of the global economy.  If it is perhaps far more meaningful to meet the sunrise at Stonehenge when circadian rhythms seem so alienated from a large parts of the workforce, even at the site where one was once able to camp beneath the open stars, the recuperation of a stellar landscape of the past seems particularly fragile at best.

We might, as Marxists, bemoan the rise of a “post-circadian capitalism” globally generated by the expansion of nocturnal shifts of work, now conducted often in artificially illuminated sites, roads, and sites of transit, for the scope of this technological change–for increasingly hazardous work that presses against the limits and rhythms of our circadian clocks.   But this only partly comes to terms with how our internal clocks that respond to the exposure to daylight that are common to life from cyanobacteria to plants birds to mammals extend through society, and are as tightly tied to the 24-7 news cycle and vanishing of diurnal distinctions between time zones in a globalize world, that the illumination of the night-time world seems to facilitate.   And it only captures a very anthropocentric notion of the scope and scale of what increasingly illuminated night-time skies seem to bring, and the deeply alienating cognitive effects of the loss of starlight on our cognitive skills.

 

1. The synthetic maps of incredible clarity in the atlas are alarming–or should be–for how the portray a record of the inhabited world.  They synthesize some tens of thousands of high-resolution satellite images chart how the night sky is seen cross the world, measuring the local degradation of celestial light with a precision rarely assessed so comprehensively in the past.  The maps not only the expanse of light pollution, but are a measure of globalization:  the extent of night-time illumination, but the increased brightening of nocturnal skies, is not only a measure o human settlement, after all, but in large part the networks of transportation, communication, and industrialization that have not been tracked locally, reflecting as the do the construction of lighting on night-time roads, round-the-clock transportation networks, ever-expanding cities and extra-urban growth,as well as workspaces that run twenty-four hours a day.

The augmentation of light at night has come to grow at a rate of six percent each year in most of Europe and the United States that seem to “take us further from the stars” and from natural starlight.  The extent of the diminished visibility of the constellations from human sight from light pollution might offer a metaphor for global disorientation, with the increased  global surplus of artificial light and the diffusion of an ever-present artificial skyglow on the horizon of most of the inhabited world.  If stars provided a primordial site of contact with bearings–indeed the graticule by which Claudius Ptolemy imagined the ability to order spatial relations was astronomically derived–widely occurring afterglow from cities, highways, factories, airports, and suburbia not only create a diminished opportunity for star-gazing but a potentially disorienting disappearance of the Milky Way.

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It is especially poignant that in an era of brightening skies, druids gather in the circle of Stonehenge’s sarsen stones to witness the spectacle of midsummer sunrise through the frames of longstanding massive ancient trilithons to celebrate the summer solstice.  The annual gatherings mark the closest approach of the sun to the planet, and greet the arrival of the longest day in the northern hemisphere in a world.  Yet in a region where night sky is increasingly less clearly differentiated from day, the observation of celestial lights on  Salisbury Plane are likely to be marred by the ever-present glow of electric lights.  And the increasing illumination of night-time skies have definitively altered how most Europeans will perceive the stars, and compromised the visibility of starlight to the naked eye across most of Europe and the inhabited world–especially in landlocked urban environments which are transformed to expansive islands of light that diffuse across the countryside, increasingly evident in satellite photography.

 

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The interactive maps compiled from satellite images released this summer reveal the extent of global brightening in ways that suggest a massive scale of environmental change only begun to be assessed.  The maps chart the darkest districts of England are the Isles of Scilly, West Devon and Eden in Cumbria, most of England’s more populated territory suggest the particularly invasive nature of light pollution, and its difficulty to be clearly mapped–and the increasing diffusion of electric light into once-rural areas have created an unclear divide in which just over a fifth of England is not affected by the increased illumination of night-time streets.

 

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England’s Light Pollution and Dark Skies/© Natural England 2016. © Crown/ database right 2016 Earth Observation Group, NOAA National Geophysical Data Center.  Developed by LUC

The pronounced concentration of diffracted light emanating from electric lights in London remains striking for the diffusion that extends into the roads that ring the city–

 

London Light.pngEngland’s Light Pollution and Night Skies

 

–but the situation is symptomatic of the broader impact of electric light worldwide, which suggests that night time skies have been degraded across all of land-based Europe, and that the observation of stars in night-time skies only remain pristine in uninhabited areas at sea.

 

visual-impacts1.jpgFalchi et al. (2016)

 

Much as friends in San Francisco and Oakland now travel to the Eastern Sierras to witness the visibility of celestial light, and others based in Paris travel to islands in Croatia where they can take pleasure in the diminished radiant light that mars most astronomical observation closer to home, attempts to escape from the global brightening caused by the scattering of artificial light around urban environments compromise celestial visibility worldwide.   The increased pleasure of enjoying night skies leads to even some rapturous encounters with the revelation of a sky full of celestial lights, noticed by ecopsychology, suggests that noticing the signs of the night sky not only be an orienting need for animals, but individual well-being that the ubiquity of afterglow threatens to erode.  Yet the increased acceptance of LED lighting which scatters more widely through the atmosphere and creating  more intense skyglow than older technologies of long wavelength light.

 

2.  The question is not only one of individual health, but historical preservation.  Recent calls for the “tasteful illumination” of the neolithic monument to kindle interest in the monument back in 2011 in hopes to “add some magic” to its ruins would have only returned the monument to artificial illumination it enjoyed in the 1970s and 80s, stopped only to reduce accidents on the nearby A303.  But the floating of the proposal rightly led some to caution that preserving Stonehenge in “its landscape and part and parcel of that is restoring Stonehenge to its sky, to keeping it as dark as possible”–despite its position close to the well-travelled A303 two-lane highway.

 

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If the almost ubiquitous spread of skyglow offers a skewed way to map populations, expanding nocturnal illumination in the northern hemisphere may make the Salisbury skies far less of a privileged place to wait for the arrival of the solstice sun.  Although NASA’s satellite composite image of nocturnal illumination presents a picture of the regions most prominently effected, the effects of the compromising of the visibility of starlight to the naked eye is only beginning to be mapped as an environmental change of considerable consequence–

Visible Earth NASANASA’s Visible Earth Project

–and demand to be mapped in England in further detail.  While Milton celebrated how God “made the stars,/ And set them in the firmament of heaven/To illuminate the earth, . . . / . . . and rule the night, / And light from darkness to divide,” the division between light and dark has become increasingly blurred, as stars are rendered less visible by over-illumination, and the surrounding dark less “ever-during” and darkness is far less visible than it ever was, especially near the light-domes created by extended urban and extra-urban areas.

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As of 2010, the deterioration of light pollution to the naked eye grew in much of the UK:

Naked Eye Light Polution.pngLight Pollution to Naked Eye (2010)

The broadly documented phenomenon of ‘global brightening’ is concentrated in the most densely inhabited areas of the world, and correlates to economic production, as it concentrates in the northern hemisphere–as is shown in a recent interactive online map that reveals the extent of those areas of stellar visibility are compromised night-time skies, whose majesty are only visible in areas removed from illumination from diffused artificial light.  Indeed, global brightening and light pollution have come to exercise such strong visual impact on the night-time skies of much of the more densely urban areas that the Milky Way cannot actually be seen due to the reduction of night-time stellar visibility–here able to be contrasted with the Visible Earth project of electric light emissions.

Visible Earth NASA

mondo_ridotto0p25Istituto di Scienza e Tecnologia dell’Inquinamento Luminoso

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The mapping of such atmospheric light pollution suggests the growing problem of the degradation of night-time skies on account of the increased illumination polluting night-time skies that has almost obliterated the pristine skies across Europe, with the Milky Way obliterated for much of England, from London to the north, Paris, the Netherlands, and northern Italy:  indeed, the introduction of LED lighting in the north has further compromised what was once called the “natural sky,” giving rise to personalized mapping of the artificial illumination of night-sky brightness by the The Dark Sky Meter app for iPhones, as “Myskyatnight” provides a tool making available night-sky brightness to all–and the creation of select “Dark Sky Parks” across the United States within national parks, to create preserves for night-sky visibility across the western states like Sedona, Arizona, the Colorado Plateau near Moab, Utah or the Grand Canyon–all joining  Dark Sky Places with sponsorship from the International Dark Sky Association based in Tuscon, Arizona.

The compromising nature of “Light Limiting Magnitude” is still painstakingly compiled, as of 2016, locally measuring the limiting magnitude of observation by the naked eye–the faintest star seen by unaided human sight, a rough guide to judging the degradation of night-time skies.

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But the questions of different perceptions of the sky and the concentration of the diffusion of light pollution can better register the pervasiveness of night-time afterglow.

Indeed, most children in the United States aren’t familiar with the extent of celestial illumination of night-time skies, and indeed much of the night time skies are compromised in much of the northern hemisphere–

IMpact on Night Skies World Wide

–and the skies of Britain are filled with afterglow–

Britain at NightNASA-Earth at Night

And even if the monument of Stonehenge is not yet protected as a community adopting low levels of light pollution by the International Dark Sky Association, the Salisbury plane is filled with afterglow from artificial illumination of spreading rural suburbia–

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–if the extent of nocturnal illumination of the skies considerably varies across England, the nation which has sthe largest areas of dark sky in Europe, evident in the striking diffusion of night-time light between Manchester and Sheffield.

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The neolithic monument called Stonehenge is not yet truly so starkly illuminated as a faked photograph that recently made rounds on Twitter might suggest, making its illumination more absurd.

 

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Despite the brightening of night-time skies of southern England, celestial observation was long commemorated in the ancient structure of Stonehenge, where the alignment of the world with astronomical skies took advantage of the plateaux of the Salisbury Plain.  The crowding of the inner circle of blue stones, erected between 2400 and 2200 BC, are bound off from visitors save the modern groups of druids, if summer solstice has encouraged pagan pilgrimages to the 4,500 year old circle of sarsen stone circle in hopes to partake in collective re-enactments of druidical rites of primordial worship of the arrival of the midsummer sun at sunrise, watching the sun rise at the closest point to earth’s northern hemisphere.

Stonehenge solstice

So heightened is the demand for attaining ecstatic existences of the many druidical groups in the United Kingdom’s English Heritage has booked visits within the sarsen stones over several of the weeks following the actual summer solstice, so as to accommodate their re-enchanting of the wonder of the rhythms of renewal of celestial light at a time when the afterglow of artificial light has obscured the stars in night-time skies for the majority of the world’s populations.

Western Europe light pollution.pngFalchi et al. (2016)

The recent compilation data of accurate measurements of human-generated light from “Sky Quality Meters” in some 20, 865 locations has led to a more exact measurement of current levels of light pollution in a newly comprehensive atlas of the world, and indeed a forecast of the increased compromise after the transition to LED lights in Europe.

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For among the growing list of anthropogenic changes recently mapped, nothing can capture disenchantment so much as the artificial illumination of the night-time sky in a globalized world–even as an expanding amount of artificial illumination has changed our perceptual relation to the night-time world, and a consequent reduction of apparent celestial light.  The global spread of access to artificial night-time illumination has so expanded the extent of the diffraction of light to create an almost omnipresent afterglow of the night-time sky to compromise dark-adapted abilities of vision as well as stellar visibility.  Not only has the explosion of light pollution across much of the inhabited world compromised and obscured night vision of stars across much of the inhabited world for one third of the planet’s residents, but the rapid increase in artificial light in much of the night sky–now measured as growing at a rate of 5-10% each year–threaten to obscure in due time the notion of stellar visibility, sufficient to provoke the neurological correlative of disenchantment from stellar visibility in the night sky.  The obscuring of night sky that is projected to be caused by the unnecessary addition of nocturnal illumination by LED lights is projected to increase the scattering of atmospheric light to produce such an extreme artificial brightness in much of the night-time sky over future decades was projected, if keeping at the conservative current rate of growth of light levels of 6% per year, that few or no Americans will be able to perceive the stars of the Milky Way.

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The increased compromising of activities as star-gazing offers and instance of the ever-increasing disenchantment of our perception of the environment, as artificial illumination increasingly erodes the possibility of being alone in relation to the night-time world.

falchi1HR-milky-way-over-park.jpgMilky Way Seen on Utah-Colorado Border in Dinosaur National Monument/Dan Duriscoe

Nikolay Doychinov:Angence France Presse--Getty Images.pngNicolay Doichinov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

For this reason, the interest of the ability to map the extent of nocturnal illumination across most of the inhabited world–and especially across its most densely inhabited centers of habitation–has grown as a needed assessment of the state of stellar visibility.

For if most are not so much enslaved in a Weberian “iron cage” to bureaucratic systems of efficiency, calculation and control than they feel removed from experience, many do find the experience of night-time and night-vision increasingly compromised by the insistent or incessant visibility of much of the globe, where night-time glow obscures constellations for over three-quarters of the United Kingdom, even as Stonehenge is privileged as a site of druidical celebrations.  If witnessing the summer solstice sunrise is a centering annual rite for many, the increasingly compromised visibility of night-time stars suggests an unpredicted but disorienting effect of over-inhabitation, where the near-constant illumination of population centers creates an anthropogenic effects of not fully understood consequences, as well as obscuring the visibility of starry skies now only able to be glimpsed in remote areas, removed from the intense afterglow of urban lights, and revealing the extent of the natural illumination of the night-time sky.

meteor-Eta-Aquarid-5-6-2016-darla-Young-Carthage-AR1-e1466811727327-1.jpgDarla Young, Peak of Eta Aquaria Meteor Shower (May 2016)/EarthSky

For if the spirituality of witnessing the solstice sunrise exits as an independent event, as if to recognize its continued existence independent of human agency and as following in the paths of the ancient meaning of the stones’ placement in a circle of monumental frames, imposes a continued meaning on observers, as if “bringing us as it were into its field of force” in Charles Taylor’s words, over-illumination reveals an anthropocentric belief in our access to night-time spaces and a control of space that reduce any sense of a world separate from human agency, even while mapping the extent of global over-inhabitation–and, as Ben Henning showed in a gridded cartograms in the over-illumination of the world’s most densely inhabited areas.  And while we consider globalization as having a distinct set of “winners” and “losers,” the mapping of the effects of the increase in artificial illumination that is already visible in the night sky is most  evident in the increased obstruction of stellar visibility over the most developed areas of the world.

 

Earth at Night--NASA photo and equal-pop projection

 

3.  The “devastating senselessness” that Max Weber feared and predicted has a basis for disenchantment has progressed in different directions in the increasing departure of much of the globalized world from access to night skies, and the contraction of areas of continued visibility of night-time skies, meteor showers or constellations.  Increasingly,  many websites urge driving to find “darker skies” away from the glow of city lights to recuperate an increasingly threatened sense of contact act with witnessing the stars, setting out in search for spatially relocating oneself to have contact with the arrival of Perseid meteors or to view Leonids, in secluded spots where the glow of car headlights or nocturnal illumination of highways and city streets won’t compromise night vision in an increasingly personalized age, to seek a sort of spiritual purity in star-gazing.

And so, back to Stonehenge.  The Dutch medievalist Johann Huizinga shrewdly observed “The modern city hardly knows true silence or true darkness any more, nor does it know the effect of single small light or distant shout” in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919).  Even if electric lights were once confined to cities and urban areas, the presence of light is now also invading the skies of rural areas in the diffracted luminescent of night-time glow. Indeed, the performance of sacred rites of the celebration of solar observation at Stonehenge recoups a re-enchanted world rooted in the wonder of solstice, and engage in the ecstatic sense of observing the sun rising though placed stones.  The promise of a return to ancestral rhythms of witnessing the renewal of dawn is a means of restoring alignment to cosmic rhythms, particularly apt as observing stellar light is increasingly inaccessible to most of the world’s populations.  Ye the re-enchantment of Stonehenge, by no means the only circle of ancient stones but perhaps the most romanticized, has even as the overlit presence of man-made night has radically altered the global skies–the celebration of solstice runs against the growing skyglow in night skies, and re-evaluate the future of any un0bstructed points of access to “natural” levels of celestial light–already raising fears that led former  to “illuminate” the stones would have only further distanced observers from the celestial calendars that Stonehenge was designed to mark.

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The mythical power of Stonehenge derives from the very nature of unknown reasons for its construction, which have long lead it to be tied to a sense of mystically recuperating cosmic harmony through the ancient even arrangement of its stones, long assumed to offer a neolithic astronomical observatory, if not a basis for computing the calendar.

Stonehenge solstice sunset Pete Glastonbury, 2008Stonehenge Summer Solstice Sunset, Pete Glastonbury (2008)

The rudimentary astronomical observatory  on the plateau of Salisbury plain, has a historical aura of harmony with celestial spheres, but may increasingly serve as a nostalgic reminder of an  era when rhythms of time were divided by the clear distinction between night-time sky and sunrise, and has become something of a shrine and site of pilgrimage for pagans seeking to get in touch with astrological rhythms that are increasingly distanced from human sight in a world where stellar visibility is increasingly reduced by artificial light luminance–and contact with sources of celestial light compromised.

stellar stSummer Solstice at Night in Stonehenge (2010)/Gabriel Stargardter

The shared awe in observing the sun rise through the stones defines a site of renewal increasingly in demand in a disenchanted world.  But although the earth is most continuously illuminated by the sun’s rays in midsummer, increased presence of night-time glow across the northern hemisphere has so subtracted stellar visibility to compromise the darkness of night skies, including in the UK.  It may be time to ask whether the mystery of the encounter with dawn at Stonehenge this summer solstice may be hampered by the subtraction of starlight from across the night-time sky–dampening the shared awe of watching the illusion of the first light of dawn expanding through the sarsen stones, as the sun rises from the easternmost point of the horizon.

Stonehenge sunrise.pngEddie Mullholland/The Telegraph

stonehenge solstice bwThe Telegraph–Summer Solstice at Stonehenge 2015

The ceremony of witnessing the surprise at the monumental structure of lintened stones has regained a sense of sacrality–if not pop spectacle–but may acquire a more wistful flavor as starlight is less visible from the ground.  In an era when artificial light pollution is so widely diffused across the northern hemisphere, even the “place” of Stonehenge is in a sense stripped of its sense of specificity, with the increased obscuring of star from the night-time sky.  Diminishing stellar visibility stands to change stargazing forever for most of England.  While ecstatic revelry among witness seeks to restore ancestral ties in the circular placement of trilithons that appear to echo a cosmic order, diminishing starlight and night-time in much of England may change that rather drastically.

Temporarily used for contact details: The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon, SN2 2EH, United Kingdom, Tel: 01793 414600, Email: archive@english-heritage.org.uk, Website: http://www.english-heritage.org.ukEnglish Heritage

The meaning longest day may seem divested of symbolic meaning in an era when night-time light pollution threatens to defamiliarize much of England with the stars–and much of Europe as the glow of electrical lighting has begun to mask a greater amount of the Milky Way.  With increasing stars removed from the night-time skies, obscured by artificial sky glow that removes the constellations from 77% of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom, especially in many cities, and reducing areas to view the night sky’s stars–as has been revealed in a new global atlas of night-time levels of illumination by sources of artificial man-made light, a striking atlas of the effects of human habitation.  The fading of constellations by artificial airglow is perhaps a cartographical metaphor for modern alienation–a sense of alienation which stands to increase as sodium lights are replaced with cool white LED lights, obscuring even a greater share of stars from the night-time sky with the diffusion of light pollution–as has been mapped increasing obstruction artificial light so intense to obscure night-time illumination by celestial light.

Light-Polution-Map-Europe-Geoawesomeness

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Even if the site  of Stonehenge may continued to be treasured as a privileged site of astronomical observation, witnessing the sun’s rise each midsummer through the stones of the sarsen circle has occurred for over 4,000 years, the stones placed on an axis lining up with sunrise on the the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  The sarsen circles has long led it to be a site of celestial measurement or ancient astronomy, but the congregation to its site may gain new symbolic relevance in a world increasingly illuminated by artificial light–an overfit world, where the viewing of celestial lights, and even the light of the milky way, has rapidly reduced as increasing artificial brightening has redefined the visibility of the night-time sky and the observation of sunrise, and artificial sky brightness seriously compromises stellar visibility for the most inhabited parts of the world–encouraging the growth of protectionist outfits like the International Dark Sky Association to call attention to those sites that still have low levels of light pollution by online toolslisting those communities that adopt ordinances for low-luminecense places,  including Flagstaff AZ, Borrego Springs CA, and the Isle of Sark and Isle of Coll in the UK–but not Salisbury, despite its relative lack of urban development.

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Diminished visibility of constellations to the naked eye may offer a metaphor for collective disorientation from celestial skies–or a sense that the stars are no longer clearly aligned.

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Even as crowds of 20,000 gather to mark the rising of the sun through the rock circle, the sky will not only be much less darker when the sun rises but the stars less clearly visible:  the need to see such purified solar light may have grown with abundant artificial light pollution across so much of the over-developed world, where the absence of the dark night sky extends over an increasing area of the world than previously thought possible.

Indeed, although the Ministry of Defense plans to build new modular homes for troops returning from Germany on the Salisbury plain that will actually obscure the Stonehenge sunrise on the horizon near Stonehenge by 2020, will the spectacle of sunrise be as dramatic after the night sky is artificially lightened by the widespread adoption of LED lighting?

0006bc60-642NASA-Earth at Night

 

5.  Witnessing dawn at Stonehenge may continue to awe, but the presence of dark skies is now foreign to much of the world.  The extensive spread of artificial illumination across so many inhabited areas of the world have been documented a ground-breaking global atlas of light pollution, synthesizing a holistic record of the diffusion of light across the continents, that has been created from tens of thousands of high-resolution infra-red images of nighttime lights across the continents.  The images in the atlas offer the first chance to survey and assess an increasingly constant illumination of the night-time sky–in which the prevalence of widespread artificial light stands to diminish the impact of sunrise, if not the arrival of the longest day of summer.  Indeed, the dispersed intensity of artificial illumination has increasingly degraded the visibility of the night-time sky evident in mapping of the extent by which artificial night-sky brightness obscures the visibility of the stars.

 

artificial sky brightness

scale bar SQM

Artificial Night-Sky Brightness

IMpact on Night Skies World Wide.jpg

 

Nocturnal illumination has become so ubiquitous across the inhabited world that it is almost a proxy for inhabitation, the solstice may mark far less noticeable change, so removed is “natural” illumination of celestial sources from the experience of most.   The atlas is the most recent in the accumulation of convincing evidence–as if it was needed–of the arrival of the anthropocene.  It represents the culmination of the attempts of Fabio Falchi to chart the extent of light pollution in the night-time sky, refined many times since he used similar tools to create the dataset of first-ever light pollution atlas in 2001 using a Air Force satellite–and Falchi and his collaborators would be the first to note that since then, nocturnal illumination has increased some 6% each year in Europe and the United States, in ways that now make it hard to understand what “natural” might be, and even harder to imagine experiencing how a night sky without light pollution would appear.

The publication of the atlas is something of an actual wake-up call:  for it has synthesized for the first time the extent artificial night-time light pollution across the globe is not only an image of light sources, but of upward emissions of light from more densely inhabited areas that are diffused through the environment, and often refracted by the atmosphere riche with aerosols.  The data maps document a world defined by almost ubiquitous light pollution that is concentrated in the northern hemisphere, but the massive synthesis of the light emitted across the world reveals multiple magnitudes beyond the “natural” starry sky.  Whereas “natural” lighting was once confined to celestial sources, the growing ubiquity of night-time luminescence has created artificial airglow altering the experience of the dark night-time sky.  The atlas even allows one to calculate distances necessary to travel to perceive a night-time sky that is free from artificial brightness–and to observe how much areas free from artificially generated night-time illumination have actually shrunk for many of the world’s inhabitants in much of the northern hemisphere, and in which Antarctica is the only continent not afflicted by the pollution of artificially generated light.  The new distribution of light intensity whose visible impact –the most visible footprint of over-modernization–suggests a massive environmental change whose consequences are only beginning to be understood.

IMpact on Night Skies World Wide.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society

visual impacts

The spectacular synthesis of high-resolution infra-red data allows an opportunity to assess the environmental alterations created by night-time light as never before.  The calculation of Sky Quality Measurement along a Lambert projection reveals how electric light travels hundreds of miles far from its sources, damaging night-time skies across much of the globe.  Despite its very pervasiveness as a global problem–and one that has advanced so rapidly–the geographical extent of changes in night-time luminance has been rarely perceived or adequately synthesized, until the calibration of “artificial illuminance” offers tools to map the presence of light in the night-time skies in high-resolution form.  The synthesis of data from across the world by infrared imaging offer a better sense of the extent of the ubiquity of the degradation of night-times skies by using a Visible Infrared Radiometer Suite to calculate the relative brightness of previously dark skies, suggesting a world that increasingly glows with frightening intensity, where the illumination only by celestial bodies only exists at sea.  Digital cartography remotely measured by satellite telemetry meets environmental history to raise provoking questions of just how far we have moved form a world where night time was confined to celestial illumination.  Whereas stars might have offered bearing, as they long did, to global location.  Has the ubiquity of geolocation arrived at time when we have lost the ability, as well as the need, to easily calculate global position by celestial observation of the stars?

The concentration of regions of light pollution in Europe, where the intensity of night-time illumination is often ten times above the “natural” levels of celestial illumination from the moon and stars–

Light-Polution-Map-Europe-GeoawesomenessRoyal Astronomical Society

above natural light

–and is only rivaled by the eastern seaboard of North America and eastern half of the United States.  Indeed, in erasing the dominance of celestial sources of illumination, night-time vision has been degraded for much of the global population with consequences we have rarely considered, with the result that events such as the summer solstice are far less clearly defined parts of our calendar.  Whereas Milton once expressed awe at the creation of stars “set . . . in the firmament of heaven/To illuminate the earth,” and “sowed with stars the heaven thick as a field” of light, “Their small peculiar, though from human sight/So far remote, with diminution seen,” the erasure of stars from much of the night-time sky suggest a degree of alienation from one’s environment.  The inundation of the night-time atmosphere with artificial light around the Nile delta, for example, gives the region a  surreal glow that, while beautiful in its own eery way, registers the rivers’ pollution of a striking the density of electric lights.

nile_vir_2012287.jpg

nile_vir_2012287_lrg.jpg

The atlas of images that registers the distribution of nighttime illumination based on data from the NOAA–NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite uses new indices of Sky Quality Measurement of the night-time sky, to measure the rapidity and nature of this massive change of our shared experience of the degree to which artificial “skyglow” or luminance has compromised the starriness of the night sky.  Using indices based on a ration between artificial brightness and the “natural” background brightness of the night sky removed from man-made sources of light (174 μcd/m2) provides the best measure yet of the ever-present “horizon glow” generated by cities–which, if once confined to factory towns, has become a characteristic of the night sky.  The recent synthesis  of the presence of night-time light pollution across the globe is not only an image of light sources, but the upward emissions of light from more densely inhabited areas.  Its synthetic images document a world defined by almost ubiquitous light pollution that is concentrated in the northern hemisphere, but the massive synthesis of the light emitted across the world reveals multiple magnitudes beyond the “natural” starry sky.

Across the United States over 40% of whose inhabitants can no longer view the heaves with eyes adapted to night vision, on account of the ever-brighter built surroundings.  While an inability to adapt to night vision is less true for Europeans as a whole (15%), according to the team run by Fabio Falchi, about a third of the world’s inhabitants are no longer able to discern the stars of the Milky Way across the nighttime sky, obscuring stellar visibility for much of its inhabitants, in a marked impoverishment of perception not limited to overnight camp-outs, increasingly endemic to urbanized areas, where exceeding magnitudes of twenty-fold seems increasingly common.

Artificial Light USA North AmericaRoyal Astronomical Society

above natural light

Unlike an image of the local illumination of space in the United States, as that created by NASA in 2012 of the levels of lighting across the entire earth and the United States–

nocturnal illumination.png

–images in the atlas of artificial light tracked the expansion of light pollution across the world’s surface and in different regions, through a dataset that measured degrees of local environmental degradation, rather than noting local levels of emission of artificial light or the relative intensity of local levels of light.  The result is a clearer sense of how light alters space, and indeed compromises levels of man-made light visible at any place, a far more sensitive record of local environment.

Artificial Light USA North America.jpg

If the dataset is made on the same measurements of local light intensity, the result is to better map the persistent presence of light in an atlas of artificial light’s presence, or “artificial sky luminance,” to measure the propagation of the nighttime landscape.

The overwhelming extent of anthropogenic effects of increasing light pollution have been measured and documented the first atlas of the night sky, compiled from data collected by a U.S. Air Force satellite after some 15 years of study.  The recent atlas registers an amazing rate of increased intensity of light pollution at an annual rate of 6% in North America and Europe.  It found that as much as 83% of the world’s population and more than 99% of the inhabitants of Europe and the United States live under steeply light-polluted skies (with an  artificial sky brightness great than 14 μcd/m2)–as much as 88% of Europe and half of the United States regularly experience skies so compromised by light pollution.  At one extreme, night-time skies in the country of Singapore prevent inhabitants from adapting to night vision and light pollution fully masks the Milky Way.

Light-Polution-Map-Asia-Geoawesomeness.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society

To be sure, sub-saharan Africa is less subject to light pollution, aside from its western coast–but an intensity of light traces the course of the River Nile, and is striking across most of the Middle East, in ways that suggest possibilities of neurophysiological change.

Light-Polution-Map-Africa-Geoawesomeness.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society

The increasing swaths of light pollution in more densely built and inhabited areas–also including Israel, the Netherlands, Kuwait, Malta, Egypt and Qatar–where over or approaching half of their inhabitants have no chance of viewing the Milky Way raises the possibility of inevitable challenges of viewing a clear nocturnal starry sky in much of the globe, or of light uncontaminated by artificial lighting across the world.  Indeed, the reduced of areas of “natural” light save in regions of Africa and the Australian outback maps–in ways comparable to the near-absence of regions of the United States free from man-made sound–the conflation of nature and culture that defines the anthropocene.

Africa indeed folds in upon itself, as much of central South America, in a gridded cartogrammic warping of a Robinson projection of the world as it is illuminated at night, by Benjamin Hennig, based on NASA’s measurements of night-time lights in 2012:  while Hennig has created a warped image of to show the proportional degrees of light in which more inhabited regions of the world live, and the stunning illustration of the inequality in illumination against an equal population projection of the world.

Redistribution of world at night by PopulationBenjamin D. Hennig

Hennig had taken as the basis for his own dataset the earlier 2012 NASA data, which showed an image of earth still largely drenched in dark, if spotted by points of light reaching a huge density in Europe and North America, as well as Japan, yet doesn’t register the effects of light pollution propagation, as light diffuses in the local atmosphere and travels far from its actual source–as Hennig’s map is distribution of light sources over space–and only partly registers “the end of night as you know it,” as the NASA Earth Observatory promised, after gathering night-time data in a continuous image of the earth over 312 orbits made in April and October 2012.

WERH ANT NIGHTNASA Earth Observatory (click to download map views)

 

Even as night is more removed today, the need to celebrate the separate nature of night from day seems central to our perception of the environment, as is our need for ceremonial contact with the sun.  Indeed, the Stonehenge solstice celebrations evoke the ancient past in coming weeks, for all their fictive historical recreation of Uther Pendragon and Merlin, mythically credited with constructing the circle of sarsen stones of Stonehenge–

 

stonehengesummersolstice2010-druidkingarthurpendragonvintagedepthttpflic.krp8cb6n8.jpg Vintagedept Creative Common

suggest a modern lamentation of the lost world of diminished light, when the fierceness of the solstice pierced through the dark world at dawn, in ways that are increasingly lost to our overlit world, as well as an attempt to evoke the mystery of first contact with sunlight.

 

stonehengesummersolstice2010-thesunrisesbehindthestonecirclevintagedepthttpflic.krp8caz6f.jpgVintagedept Creative Commons

 

6.  If the increasing nature of artificial brightness in the sky, registered here in a composite map of night brightness, created in a composite photography from tens of thousands of high-resolution images taken by the NOAA–NASA Suomi National Partnership satellite.  Since the first global image of night-time illumination was devised in the late 1980’s, the quantitative measurement of variations in specific light sources since 1998 from unsaturated data has provided a new nature of measuring “stellar extinction” and indeed capabilities of night vision, by measuring the scattering of light in atmospheric aerosols and the effects of light flux of terrestrial earth-bound sources on the night-time skies–in the name of reducing energy consumption, despite the potential hazard of blue-rich light, some five-times more disruptive to the human sleep cycle than the electric lighting conventionally used in much of the world.

 

artificial sky brightnessRoyal Astronomical Society

 

7. We seem to stand at the verge of increased light pollution, moreover, with the arrival in Europe of high luminesce efficiency LED lighting.  The increasing rate of artificial illumination is not only not poised to end, but the future shift to 4000K CCT LED technology suggests and increasingly illuminated world–one of whose brightest spots happens to be near to where the monument of Stonehenge lies.  The increasing pinks and white-hot areas of huge regions in the north of Europe and England suggest a perpetual ambient illumination that seems destined to erase much of the visibility of the night sky–even if LED lighting reduces energy consumption and the use of fossil fuels, it carries health and environmental risk of blue-rich lighting in public spaces, and its increased carcinogenic risk, as well as for cardiovascular disease, and impaired daytime functioning.

Europe and Conversion to 4000K CT technology LEDFalchi et al. (2016)

Indeed, the different levels of luminance between electric and orange high-pressure sodium lamps in the East are immediately and saliently visible in early photographs of Berlin at night, with the gas lamps of the West evident on the left.

Berlin_ISS_nightInternational Dark Sky Association

Already, the visual impact of the luminance of this expansive artificial illumination of the night is particularly pronounced–degrading the visibility of constellation long known to man in much of Europe, and only offering pristine skies at sea–as well as the Nova Scotia, Scotland, Algeria, the western Sahara or Ukraine.  The significant travel required to arrive at regions where artificial brightness was less than 1% of the natural background, with the Milky Way no longer visible in much of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, or from urban environments from Boston to Washington, DC.

visual impactsFalchi et al. (2016)

Indeed, the radical transformation o the night-time skies over much of the world suggest the unique nature of sub-Saharan Africa, where Europeans might in the not to future travel to be able to observe constellations crowding the night-time skies.

Sub-Saharan AfricaRoyal Astronomical Society

What this means for the redefinition of place–as much as of the visibility of the night skies–is particularly troubling, as the advancing tide of artificial illumination suggests not only a reduction in stellar visibility the impoverishes our experience of the night-time world, but a change in the experience of nocturnal darkness, as important for humans as for nocturnal animals.

dmsp

In Italy, found a 2001 study by Falchi, Cinzano and Eldvidge, using the data of the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center, the peninsula was already awash in light, diminishing stellar visibility for some time.

itamini.jpgP. Cinzano, F. Falchi (University of Padova), C.D. Elvidge (NOAA Geophysical Data Center-Boulder), Copyright Royal Astronomical Society

 

The world at night will most probably never be the same, and promote pilgrimages to a reduced number of places in the globe where stargazing is still permitted–now most accessible, if one doesn’t much mind the pitch of waves, on flotillas, or abandoned oil platforms, far at sea–far from an overinhabited continent inundated with artificial light.

 

USA GLOBE.png

 

While mostly confined to the northern hemisphere in its continuous glare, the image is almost the inverse of where globalization is seen as bringing benefits–and reveals its growing costs to the so-called “winners.”

 

World at NIGHT.png

2 Comments

Filed under anthropocene, earth observation, global brightening, light pollution, Satellite maps

2 responses to “Our Increasingly Overlit Night Skies

  1. As discussed in Hamlet’s Mill, the lights above provided the first unified field to organize human culture on the earth. Our loss of this vital map has reduced likewise the significance and beauty of living. One senses a similar saturation across other plateaus in our world. The explosion of information seems to have masked rather than revealed what it beholds: most of us cannot name a single tree growing in our yard–much less grasp the implications of its relationship with the fungi partnering its roots. Rather than extend the organizing metaphor, the bright meshwork of the internet has flooded us we information only, and seems to have dimmed our understanding of the memory theatre itself and with it a loss of the deep flowing and co-extensive identities held and interlinked in the rhizomes.

  2. It occurs to me that noise pollution in the ocean applies. warm regards, John

    On Sat, Jun 18, 2016 at 12:26 PM, Musings on Maps wrote:

    > Daniel Brownstein posted: “As celebrations of summer solstice approach, > the longest day of the year marked by some seventeen hours of continuous > daylight in the northern hemisphere will be celebrated by the convergence > of druids, pagans, and other celebrants who gather in crowds to” >

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