Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Light Issue


One of then nicest things about living atop a hill this time of year is being able to look down at all the beautiful Christmas light displays on the surrounding farmhouses.  There are lights of all colors, some in the trees, some bordering the eaves of the houses below.  These are lights that are a pleasure to look at, which bring out feelings of wonder and joy.

There are other lights in our area which are not so lovely.  There are the yard lights, aimed straight out rather than downward, which blast light into their neighbors' bedroom windows two miles away.  
Not so pretty
There are barn lights mounted thirty feet up when their only purpose is to illuminate the ground below. And of course, the many, many security lights, back yard lights, coach lights on garages, porch lights, and even landscape lighting (including spotlights).

Then there is the light of the Milky Way, an opaque stream of stars culminating at the constellation Sagittarius, the center of our galaxy.  It stands above us, a magnificent and silent reminder of our place in the universe.  Its light is perhaps the most meaningful of all.

And yet, with enough halogen barn lights, porch lights and garage coach lights, the light of the Milky Way above us is dimmed, sometimes to a point where it becomes invisible. And when that happens, although we may feel safer in our mercury-vapor-lit world, we have lost something important.

Absolutely magnificent

You could once see the Milky Way late at night on the outskirts of cities like Los Angeles, but that is no more.  Even in the country, dark night skies are getting more and more scarce. Since moving here 18 months ago, we have seen several new neighbors move here from the cities and proceed to light up every nook and cranny on their property, almost as although they are afraid of the dark, of the country night sky they moved to and its shades of black, silver and gray on the fields and hillsides lit only by the stars or moon.

Of all the pollution issues we face on this planet, I hope we also include light pollution whenever we get around to actually cleaning it all up.  To miss the swirling nebula, open clusters and deep, open space of a dark night sky would be a tremendous loss to the human race.

I'm all for enjoying the Christmas lights while they are here, but I hope after the holidays are over and done with for another year, we can once again enjoy our nights lit by a different sort of light -- the light of a billion stars and galaxies who we share this universe with.  

To replace that magical zodiacal light with mercury vapor barn lights or ultra-bright LED yard lights seems an awful waste of the light of a billion suns, which move across our night sky faithfully, noticed only when it's dark enough that we can actually
see them.

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