Milky Way hidden from view for more than one-third of humanity

13 Jun 2016

A new atlas of light pollution has revealed that the Milky Way is obscured for more than one-third of humanity, including 60pc of Europeans and nearly 80pc of North Americans.

The atlas, produced by a global team of researchers led by Fabio Falchi of the Italian Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute (ISTIL), documents the severity of light pollution all over the world.

As populations (and population centres) have grown, so too has the extent of light pollution.

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According to the report – The New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness, published in Science Advances – accompanying the atlas, light pollution clearly shows the extent of human interference in nature, with it visible even in areas that seem untouched by humans during the day.

The data – gathered using high-resolution satellite data and precision sky brightness measurements, and calibrated at 20,865 locations around the world – is damning.

In western Europe, there are few areas that remain untouched by pollution, with Scotland, Sweden and Norway the countries best suited to stargazing. Outside of Europe, Canada and Australia are the best options for unhindered views of the galaxy.

Diagram showing severity of light pollution in Western Europe

The severity of light pollution in western Europe. To see in greater detail, click image. Via The New World Atlas

At the other end of the scale, Italy, Saudi Arabia and South Korea have the worst cases of light pollution. And, in North America, a mind-boggling 80pc of people cannot see the Milky Way.

Even National Parks are not immune, in spite of their myriad protections. The report cites the example of light domes from Las Vegas and Los Angeles seen in Death Valley National Park.

While light pollution may not sound as environmentally crucial as global warming, this isn’t just about astronomers not being able to see the stars. Bright nights can also affect nocturnal organisms and the ecosystems in which they live.

An already bad situation could be made far worse if sufficient thought is not given to our transition to an LED-lighted future.

Says Falchi, “Unless careful consideration is given to LED colour and lighting levels, this transition could, unfortunately, lead to a two-to-three-fold increase in skyglow on clear nights”.

Though there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, or a possible silver lining, at least – it’s not too late change things, and the atlas will help us do that.

According to Scott Feierabend, director of the International Dark-Sky Association, “the new atlas acts as a benchmark, which will help to evaluate the success or failure of actions to reduce light pollution in urban and natural areas”.

Main image via Shutterstock

Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic