A third of the population can’t see the Milky Way at night

A new atlas reveals where light pollution obscures the night sky

NIGHT LIGHTS  More than a third of Earth’s population can no longer see the Milky Way at night, a new atlas of light pollution shows. Chad, Central African Republic and Somalia boast the most pristine skies, while Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are among those countries with the worst light pollution. 

F. Falchi et al/Science Advances 2016

At night, a river of stars cuts through the dense darkness of space. These celestial bodies form our galaxy’s core and their soft glow earned our galaxy the moniker “Milky Way.” But for more than a third of Earth’s population, the glare of artificial lights conceals this cosmic wonder from view, researchers report June 10 in Science Advances. Nearly 80 percent of North Americans and 60 percent of Europeans can no longer see the galactic core at night, the researchers estimate.

Using a combination of satellite measurements and on-the-ground observations, the researchers assembled the first global atlas of artificial sky luminance, recording light pollution from everything from streetlamps to spotlights. Nearly four in five people worldwide live under light-polluted skies, the atlas reveals. Singapore boasts the brightest nights, the team found, with skies so luminous that no one living there can fully adapt to night vision. Nights are darkest in Chad, the Central African Republic and Madagascar, where more than three-quarters of inhabitants can gaze up at the stars under pristine viewing conditions.

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SKY GLOW Scientists combined satellite and on-the-ground measurements of light pollution to create the first atlas of global sky luminance. Darker, bluer colors show areas with near-natural darkness while brighter, redder colors mark areas with severe light pollution. F. Falchi et al/Science Advances 2016, ArcGlobe software by Nataliya Rybnikova

Bright nights aren’t just an eyesore for stargazers. Artificial lights can disrupt wildlife by, for example, confounding sex-seeking fireflies (SN Online: 8/12/15) and misguiding moths (SN: 6/13/15, p. 9).

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