The Milky Way, the brilliant river of stars that has dominated the night sky and human imaginations since time immemorial, is but a faded memory to one third of humanity and 80 percent of Americans, according to a new global atlas of light pollution produced by Italian and American scientists, including Chris Elvidge of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information and Kimberly Baugh of NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.
“We’ve got whole generations of people in the United States who have never seen the Milky Way,” said Elvidge. “It’s a big part of our connection to the cosmos and it’s been lost.”
Light pollution is most extensive in countries like Singapore, Italy and South Korea, while Canada and Australia retain the darkest skies. In Western Europe, only small areas of night sky remain relatively undiminished, mainly in Scotland, Sweden and Norway. Despite the vast open spaces of the American west, almost half of the U.S. experiences light-polluted nights. Light pollution does more than rob humans of the opportunity to ponder the night sky. Unnatural light can confuse or expose wildlife like insects, birds and sea turtles, with often fatal consequences.
The atlas takes advantage of lowlight imaging now available from the NOAA/NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, calibrated by thousands of ground observations. The brighter the area in this interactive map (at right), the harder it is to see stars and constellations in the night sky.