It has inspired astronomers, artists, musicians and poets but the Milky Way could become a distant memory for much of humanity, according to a new global atlas of light pollution.
The study found 60% of those living in the EU and almost 80% of North Americans cannot see the glow of our galaxy because of the effects of artificial lighting, while it is imperceptible in Singapore, Kuwait and Malta.
Described by John Milton as “a broad and ample road whose dust is gold / And pavement stars”, the Milky Way is so obscured by lighting that it is no longer visible to 77% of Britons, with the galaxy masked across 14% of the country, including London, Liverpool and Leeds.
When light from our street lamps and homes is thrown up into the sky it bounces off particles and moisture in the atmosphere and is scattered, resulting in artificial “sky glow,” a key factor contributing to light pollution.
The Milky Way is no longer visible to more than one third of the world’s population, the study found. Fabio Falchi, of the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Italy, and a lead author, called it a “cultural loss of unprecedented magnitude.”
Chris Elvidge, of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a co-author, said: “Through our technology, we’ve cut off that possibility for large numbers of people for multiple generations now. We’ve lost something, but how do we place value on it?”
Places where the Milky Way cannot be seen include Hong Kong, Beijing, much of the US east coast, much of Qatar, the Netherlands and Israel. In Belgium, it cannot be seen in 51% of the country.
“Humanity has enveloped our planet in a luminous fog that prevents most of Earth’s population from having the opportunity to observe our galaxy,” wrote the authors.
Published in the journal Science Advances by an international team of scientists, the research is based on data collected from space by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, plus computer models of sky luminescence and scientific measurements of sky brightness taken from the ground by professionals and citizens. People in Paris would have to travel 500 miles (900km) to Scotland, Corsica or central Spain to find an almost pristine night sky. Central African Republic and Madagascar are among the least affected.
“There are also biological consequences, not only on birds and insects and mammals, but also even on humans,” said Elvidge, noting how light pollution disrupts animals’ behaviour and raises health concerns in humans.
Original article with video
Photo: Matt Stansfield/Getty.