It came as a shock to me when I learned that 80% of Americans can no longer view the Milky Way from their own backyard due to light pollution. I grew up in a modest sized Midwest town back in the 1960’s, and spent most of my life in rural areas. Catching a glimpse of the Milky Way was never a challenge.
When I first became a night program guide on Kitt Peak a number of years ago, I would occasionally ask guests whether they had ever seen the Milky Way. It came as a surprise when many said they had not.
We Can Bring Back the Night Sky
We all understand the consequences of large populations in urban centers such as congestion, crime, noise, poverty and pollution. But many people never consider the deleterious health and environmental effects of light pollution. As I’ve joked with some people, light pollution is the only form of pollution that can be fixed immediately with the flip of a switch (good) or a blackout (bad).
There are things you can do in your own backyard to help preserve the night sky. Start by checking your own exterior lighting. Is it only lighting what you want, or is some aiming into the sky? Could you use less lighting? Is it properly shielded? Is it lighting up your neighbors’ backyard as well as your own? And if you’re really committed, you can go big and try to affect legislation in your community. The International Dark Sky Association provides further information on light pollution, its effects, and mitigating its impact.
Watching the summer Milky Way slowly climb the eastern horizon at night then silently hover over Kitt Peak is a moving experience. Its ascension gives you the false impression that summer monsoon clouds are rolling in to bring a much needed rain shower to the desert. Instead, the clouds of the summer Milky Way only shower us with ancient star light.
— Phil Yehle, Kitt Peak Visitor Center Guide
Join Phil at Kitt Peak on a moonless night to see the Milky Way, or hear him describe it in this video.