Stop Sacrificing the Stars: Dark Sky Nations
A few weeks ago, I went to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. to show my family around the area. I feel like every time I go, I learn something new about our planet, especially now that I'm actively seeking narratives that bolster environmental awareness. I was particularly gripped by the Lights Out exhibit, which is a new, temporary exhibit that immerses us in the possibility of a deep night sky without pollution--a tribute to the dark and a call to restore it. We walked through a wondrous gallery of cosmic images, and a mystical narration of different civilizations' "star stories" echoed from the speakers. It was magical to witness our intimate connection to the night and engage with the lore surrounding the sky.
Nowadays, we are accustomed to brighter nights, thanks to artificial light fixtures. At first, this may appear safer for late strolls and ventures, but light pollution is detrimental to the environment, wildlife, and humans. We are setting the sky alight with dazzling billboards, electric light from cars, and lights within buildings and offices. Not only are artificial lights throwing off our circadian rhythm and reducing our melatonin levels, but they're also disrupting animal migration patterns and habitats. The world is really exchanging the stars for sleepless nights--in fact, nearly 80% of North Americans can no longer see the Milky Way, and astronomers are growing increasingly concerned about pollution blinding them from the cosmos and restricting their ability to explore beyond our world.
Despite the mystery of the night, some of our most intimate connections to the world are created from starry skies. There are numerous organizations aiming to preserve night skies: the National Park Service Night Skies Team monitors sky brightness in over 100 parks, which all appear to show signs of light pollution. In 2015, the International Dark Skies Program named the Kaibab Paiute Reservation as its first Dark Sky Nation- a group collectively banding together to embrace the night sky. Residing just north of the Grand Canyon, the Kaibab Paiute recognizes their dark skies as a threatened resource and identifies as "Thunder Mountain Pootsee Nightsky," a name that establishes them as a sovereign nation. The IDS reserves public and private lands to accentuate the starry skies and provide beautiful observatories for us to admire and appreciate.
Dark sky preserves restrict artificial light pollution in order to help astronomers and protect the shelter and stories the night holds. So far, the dark sky programs are utilizing the power of place to educate residents on the essentiality of dark skies: parks and communities are implementing outdoor lighting practices that ensure the safety of humans, animals, and the stars.
Preserving the night sky goes beyond its ecological impact: there is so much culture intertwined with the cosmos. We look towards the stars as sources of inspiration and imagination-they are objects of natural wonder that pass through generations. We shouldn't tarnish the deep-rooted traditions and celebrations that revolve around the night, yet we are restricting exploration as we obscure visibility. While we may not think twice about the lamps that illuminate our paths during our walks at night, we actually have the ability to make a step towards carbon neutrality by dimming down light pollution. With smart public lighting, we save energy, reduce CO2 emissions, protect biodiversity, and preserve the enchantment of the night sky. The stars will continue to glimmer, and we will tell stories in the dark until the sun rises again.
The Lights Out exhibit is open until December 2025. Sometimes, we just need a reminder to rekindle our connection to the night. The multisensorial, walk-through journey enables you to interact with remnants of starry traditions and discover the ecological and cultural dimensions of our night skies--a sight we often take for granted, but sometimes don't think to protect.