Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The stealth pollution – Light

Comet Holmes, a usually unnoticed visitor of the night sky, came to the forefront in October when suddenly its magnitude, which is usually a dim 17, increased to a bright 2.5. Being a fan of the stars (in the sky, not earthly celebrities), I decided to see the comet for myself.

Since nighttime hours are getting longer, I could go out and see the comet at a reasonable time. I live in the suburbs east of Cleveland, and only a few miles from Lake Erie. While there are over 50,000 people living in my city, I live in an area where the houses aren’t right on top of each other. Still, there are streetlights and lights from retail stores close by. Those lights are a great help for safety and security, but not when you’re stargazing.

When we finally had a clear night, I made sure any of my outside lights were off and headed out with my telescope and binoculars. I was surprised at the amount of light spilling out from my indoor lights, so I turned them off. Two of my neighbors had their outside lights on; luckily they were over 100 feet away so it wasn’t too noticeable. After a few minutes, my eyes adjusted to the dark and I found the comet easily using binoculars.

After being outside for about 20 minutes, I noticed a glow coming from the horizon, in all directions. Since I was facing north and east, it clearly wasn’t the sun. I didn’t give it much thought at the time.

During the night, cloud cover moved back in. When I went outside at 5:00 AM to get the morning papers, the glow was still there, and brighter than ever. Despite the fact that sunrise was hours away, the clouds looked silvery white. Most noticeable were the lights from a car dealership over 2 miles away, shining a glaring white against the clouds. I scanned around and the glare of streetlights and parking lot lights from the surrounding areas created a ring of bright light all around the area. I knew that I was seeing classic light pollution, and, for a minute, it brought a memory to me…

Over 20 years ago, while visiting Maui, Hawaii, I was treated to a spectacular view of the night sky. Since many parts of the state are so far removed from big cities, not to mention the rest of the world, light pollution isn’t as much of an issue. The night sky there was amazing. The Milky Way was glaringly obvious. In fact, it was almost like you could reach up and touch the stars, as if the sky had become a low ceiling of sparkling and dancing dots, many white but some with faint color. I can close my eyes and still see it to this day. I wish, though, that I could see it again, but without having to fly across the country, or the world, to do so.

I know that it is not practical or realistic to expect everyone to keep their lights off so I can see the stars. But wouldn’t it be interesting for communities to have a “lights out” night once in a while, where we all turn off our inside and our outside lights just for the evening? Or, maybe I should just wait for a clear night, and the next power failure. I would sure like to touch the stars again, in my own back yard.

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