By Ahmed Elbenni
Published on August 1, 2021
Once upon a time, a boy looked up and saw the sky. Out in the lands of Geauga County, where trees bled gold and alpacas roamed, he saw the stars.
The river in the sky flowed from the south after the sun slept, arcing east overhead to the north. Perhaps a cloud, the boy thought. But it didn’t move. The more he looked, the more he saw that the cloud was in fact more stars, millions more aglow amidst eternities of gas and dust. Something intangible and lifelong in him stirred.
On the other side of Ohio, a half-century later, Laura Megeath showed some children the sky. With a keystroke the sun set and, to the amazement of the assembled children, the stars emerged. Ms. Megeath pointed at the silvery river-cloud slithering about the illuminated tapestry. What’s that? The Milky Way, of course, came the collective’s knowing response. Then she asked if they’d seen it before — not here, on the ceiling of Appold Planetarium in Lourdes University, but out there, in the wild.
Most of the the hands stayed down.
“It’s very sad that most visitors have not seen the Milky Way,” said Ms. Megeath, the planetarium’s coordinator. “It’s beautiful, it’s a treasure of our night sky, but it’s one that we’ve lost, for reasons of not understanding how to control our lights.”
Frank Merritt has seen the Milky Way more than a thousand times since his astronomical baptism under the Geauga County sky east of Cleveland, but rarely as easily and never as naively. As president of the Toledo Astronomical Association, he spent his reign in a futile flight from the pitiless hand of artificial light, reaching from parking lots, greenhouses, stadiums, billboards, bridges, buildings, satellites, streetlights, headlights, flashlights, spotlights, floodlights — as though the light itself were a black hole intent on swallowing the night.
“Today’s civilization,” wrote Henry Beston in his book The Outermost House, “is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night.”
The year was 1928, when many rural areas still used kerosene lamps. Since then light pollution, defined by the nonprofit International Dark-Sky Association as “inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light,” has increased exponentially. According to a 2016 study, 80 percent of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way.
“The problem is the ambient light,” said Dale Smith, the planetarium director at Bowling Green State University. The omnidirectional light of cities like Toledo generates a skyglow — really an “umbrella”— that washes out diffuse celestial phenomena like the Milky Way.
Mr. Merritt and the TSA have located the “reasonably good” punctures in the umbrella where the stars fall through: Beaver Creek Park just south of Grand Rapids, Ohio, its “excellent” view of the Milky Way expiring as construction begins on a housing development west of it; the Pioneer Scout Reservation just east of the Indiana border, also endangered by housing development; and Sylvan Prairie Park in Sylvania, where sightings are “marginal and getting worse,” but which at least has a parking lot.
Why all the light? Sally Oey, professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan, thinks the reason is quite simple: We’re afraid of the dark, LED lighting is cheap, and “since we’re transitioning into a 24/7 society, we need to have daylight all the time so we can be active all the time.”
The resulting change to the nighttime ecosystem has produced a litany of biological, safety, and sustainability problems. Excessive light disrupts our bodies’ circadian rhythms, potentially facilitating illnesses ranging from obesity to cancer; generates glare that blinds pedestrians and drivers alike; and wastes energy and racks up electric bills.
“You wouldn’t leave the faucet running,” said Ms. Oey, “so why would you leave the lights on?”
Artificial light also confuses wildlife programmed to follow natural light, sending migrating birds headfirst into buildings and luring baby turtles away from the sea to car-filled highways.
Then there is, in the words of star lore historian and IDA member Mary Stewart Adams, the “cultural amnesia.” Throughout history, she said, humanity’s attempt to emulate the cosmic order it saw in the heavens inspired many of its greatest civilizational achievements, from the Great Pyramids to Gothic cathedrals. Today, most people can’t see, identify, or differentiate between, say, Zubelgenubi and Zubeneschamali. The more we outsource our celestial literacy to impersonal technology or distant scientists, Ms. Adams said, the more we lack a “direct experience” of our own environment and the deeper our alienation from it.
If that environment includes everything we can see with the naked eye, than it stretches all the way to the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, meaning that “we belong to [deep space], and it belongs to us,” said Ms. Adams. “Not having a sense of that in everyday life, we feel burdened by the weight of the world. But the Earth is not alone.”
Ms. Adams led the team that established the Headlands International Dark Sky Park on the northwest tip of Michigan in 2011. She recalls a visit from a man from China. He walked out into the 550-acre clearing, looked up and saw night for the first time. He let out a little gasp. Then he began to cry.
The Lake Hudson State Recreation Area, just 50 miles northwest of Toledo, was the first of Michigan’s eight dark-sky parks when designated in 1993. Ohio’s only dark-sky park, Observatory Park, was established in the maple-rich, alpaca-roaming Geauga County in 2011.
These parks, however, offer refuge from light pollution, not solutions. A more sustainable fix is offered by the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative’s Lights Out campaign, launched in 2012 to reduce the billion bird deaths from building collisions every year. Participating buildings pledge to turn off or dim their exterior and interior lighting.
There has been some pushback, because “cities with an industrial past see night life as a sign of prosperity,” said Matthew Shumar, coordinator of Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative. Toledo’s “industrial mindset,” however, has been mitigated by its investment in birding ecotourism. So far seven buildings have enrolled, including Fifth Third Bank and ProMedica downtown.
But it is Flagstaff, Ariz., the the pioneer of the world’s first lighting ordinance in 1958, that provides the best model for addressing light pollution: shielded lighting fixtures that direct illumination downwards, reduction of light emissions, and yellow lighting that avoids the spectral glare of whiter lights. The result: Look up at the summer sky downtown, and you can see the Milky Way.
“Like any other town, the people in Flagstaff need light at night for utility, commerce, safety,” said Christian Luginbuhl, chair of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition. “It’s not getting rid of lighting, it’s just making light better.”
Light pollution, Mr. Luginbuhl thinks, is ultimately a cultural challenge. Unchaining people from their apathy is difficult “because it’s a cyclical problem.” The less people see stars, the less they care about them; the less they care about them, the less they see them. How to break the chain?
Flagstaff has by hosting communal stargazing parties and annual sky-oriented concerts, “positive cultural engagements with night” that speak to “people’s sleeping love for the dark sky.” For the past two years, Ohio’s Hancock Park District has attempted the same by participating in Globe at Night, an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of light pollution. Participants are taught the size, location, and associated mythologies of constellations from Pegasus to Perseus.
For Ms. Adams, these associated mythologies — these star stories — get at why light pollution is so existentially impoverishing: “Darkness is the realm of the imagination.” Every culture has a “star lore” that “imparts moral wisdom about what it means to be human.” When we lose the “imaginative cognition” needed to enter the world of fairytales and folklore, we lose those insights.
For example: “When we begin a tale with, ‘Once upon a time,’ the listener gets to choose when that tale is,” said Ms. Adams. “That kind of introduction to the story keeps you free in your imagination so you can go in a healthy way to that time, and I think that’s the same respect [for the human being] that Indigenous cultures express.”
Consider the myth of Perseus, conjoined to a constellation along the Milky Way. Perseus, witnessing Andromeda chained to a stone to be sacrificed to Cetus the sea monster, swoops down on Pegasus with the head of Medusa and petrifies the ancient beast. He rescues Andromeda and, uncharacteristically for the Greeks, they live happily ever after.
“Perseus represents the concept of the heroic human spirit, where he is in the narrative and knows he’s part of the narrative,” said Ms. Adams. “I would like to cast my lot with Perseus and say, you know what, I’m part of this story. I can do something differently to affect the outcome.”
Ms. Oey shares Ms. Adams’ optimism, and in no uncertain terms: “I think it is possible to create a world where any one can step outside and see the Milky Way.” After all, “anyone can take meaningful action.” Do I have the porch light on longer than needed? Can my skylight be shielded? Am I drawing the shades at night? A few motivated citizens can make an outsized impact. We’re all Perseus.
Compared to Michigan, where in June the State Senate designated July 2021 Dark Sky Awareness Month, Ohio has been less active. Still, there’s movement on the horizon.
Responding to intrusive light from Mucci Farms’ greenhouses, Huron in 2019 passed a Flagstaff-inspired ordinance requiring industrial greenhouses to implement fully-shielded lighting and block-out curtains. Meanwhile, Findlay, according to its director of regional planning, Matt Cordonnier, established an outside lighting ordinance in 2012 simply to conform to “current best practices” as emblematized by cities like Mason, a Cincinnati suburb.
Michael Ritchie, president of the Lima Astronomical Society, said that he’s collaborating with the Johnny Appleseed Metropolitan Park District to bring an International Dark-Sky Park to Kendrick Woods in Allen County. If completed, it will be the first dark-sky park in northwestern Ohio.
On a Christmas in the 1950s, Frank Merritt got his first telescope: a black plastic tube with Japanese-standard eyepieces, an equatorially rounded 3-inch reflector, and used gas pipes for legs. He had it with him when college dashed his astronomical career aspirations on the rocks of advanced calculus and left the wreckage at the shore of political science; when in 2012, after a long legal career, he organized public viewings of Venus’ passage over the sun, not to be seen for another 112 years; and when, two years ago, illness forced him to step down from the TSA presidency.
His first telescope’s mirror has dulled alongside the night sky, and now both are in need of a re-coating. If 65 years of amateur astronomy have taught Mr. Merritt anything, it’s that both can be restored.
“I am forever the optimist,” he said. “If you’re going to be an astronomer, you have to be an optimist. The weather is bad, the equipment breaks down — you have to say, this time it’ll be right.”
The future isn’t bright. It’s dark.
“Things will get better,” Mr. Merritt said. “They’re not getting back to the way things were in my childhood. Not in my lifetime. But then, I’m an old man.”
This article was originally published on the Toledo Blade website: https://www.toledoblade.com/a-e/living/2021/08/01/night-light-as-light-pollution-encroaches-on-night-skies-astronomers-dream-of-a-clear-view-of-the-milky-way/stories/20210725016