The Milky Way Is Disappearing

June 9, 2019

The Pawnee people took literally the idea that we are all star stuff. In their cosmology, which dates back at least 700 years, the first woman was born from the marriage of stars, and the first man from the union of the sun and moon. The stars themselves were sent by the creator god, Tirawa, who tasked them with holding up the sky.

The brightest stars were entrusted with Earth’s climate, which was thought to be the key to its fertility. But this arrangement made some lesser stars jealous, so they stole a sack of violent storms that belonged to the brighter stars and emptied them on the Earth, and this is how death came to the world.

Today, the clouds, wind, and rain are still the principal ways that humans experience the sky, and that experience is changing. The Pawnee lived through thunderstorms and tornadoes, but ours are likely to become more violent as climate change worsens. And our night sky is changing too. As light pollution intensifies, it’s emptying out of stars, and life on Earth is paying a price.

One-third of humanity —and 80 percent of North Americans—can’t see the bright smear of the Milky Way, our home in the cosmos. For the first time in the history of our species, entire generations of people have never seen our galaxy.

A full 99 percent of the people in North America and Europe sleep under a bright haze at night, caused by light pollution. A new dark sky atlas describes just how widespread this problem is, and gives scientists a starting point for studying the impact artificial light is having on humans and the other creatures that share this planet.

“The light that we detected is not even seen by people, because they are asleep; it is only seen by astronomers,” says Fabio Falchi of the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Thiene, Italy. “But I am convinced that light pollution is no longer a problem for astronomers. It is a global problem for everyone. All life on Earth evolved with the dark, with 12 hours of dark and 12 hours of sun. But now we are enveloping our planet in a perpetual glow. And life is affected by that.”

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