Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Niagara skies affected by light pollution

From the 29 November 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

If, like me and thousands of other readers of this newspaper, you live in the rural parts of the Niagara Frontier, you’re accustomed to some spectacular nighttime views, especially this time of the year when the cold, clear nights seem to amplify that stars. It’s invigorating (some folks even say it’s akin to a religious experience) to marvel at the cosmos, something that so few Americans have the chance to do. Only 20 percent of our population lives in rural areas, meaning 8 of every 10 people rarely if ever see the stars, especially in the volume that we do.

But, alas, even the magnificence that we see is not close to perfect. It doesn’t matter if you live in the most remote locales of Niagara and Orleans Counties, you’re still missing out on thousands of stars for the same reason that the city folk do: light pollution.

Look off in the horizon and you may see a glow from a nearby village or city that obscures that portion of the sky. Now, imagine countless cities and towns around us, all pouring that much light and then some into the skies. This accumulated visual noise spreads into the night, creating a glow that extends far beyond its sources. The ability to see the faintest of stars, including the dense Milky Way, is affected and what we think is a true nighttime sky really isn’t close to that at all.

That’s a result of being surrounded by numerous cities small (Lockport), medium (Buffalo) and large (Toronto). We’re within 500 miles of 46 percent of the US population and 57 percent of the Canadian population. Imagine all of the lights used to illuminate their homes, the roads they drive on, and the businesses that serve them. Rarely are the lights off even in the wee hours, meaning the sky glow over populated areas is relentless. In essence, a mammoth light umbrella covers us in Western New York.

To see how we compare against the few dark parts of the US and Canada (specifically some areas of the Great Plains, the Rockies, and the Far North) refer to the awesome Dark Sky Finder that can be found online at The website has an interactive map that you can drag around the US and zoom in to specific communities. It shows in a varying range of colors how intense the light pollution is.

Looking at the map, you’d probably be surprised to find out that the Lake Ontario shoreline of Orleans County still can’t escape the lights emitted by Rochester and the Greater Toronto Area. The whole Northeast suffers from that same fate, we’re an absolute mess. The closest that we can get to perfection is in desolate areas located within the Adirondacks and Appalachia. Stargazers can find true dark skies within the NY’s Moose River Plains and PA’s Susquehannock State Forest, the latter of which is renowned for its celestial views facilitated by a quarter million acres of near-wilderness.

Even if you can’t trek into those areas, you can still revel in more accessible sites that have incredibly vivid displays. Vast areas in Northern Pennsylvania, the Adirondacks and the Catskill Mountains possess only trace amounts of manmade illumination (look for the blue and purples hues on the map) and, therefore, nighttime skies that truthfully put ours to shame. In them, the stars seem endless and tightly packed while the Milky Way is actually, well, milky. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience those sights on clear nights while camping and I compare the difference between them and rural Gasport’s skies to the difference between Gasport’s and retail Amherst’s skies; it’s really that significant.

So, if your family vacations ever take you to the aforementioned wilds, do yourself a favor and duck out to the Great Outdoors every cloudless night that you can. You’ll be amazed at the sights and you’ll get as near as possible to seeing the stars as they were when man first set foot on this continent.

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