If, like me, 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 you can get outside and appreciate them without freezing to death. 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 nation’s 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
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 our homes, the roads we
drive on, and the businesses that serve us. 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 Niagara
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 www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/.
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 Somerset 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
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.
Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where watches the nighttime skies instead of primetime TV. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the 07 August 2014 East Niagara Post