Why is it a challenge to convince people that light pollution is a problem? For example, St. Olaf Catholic Church is the parish I currently serve, located on the north side of the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The combined population of Eau Claire and the surrounding cities of Altoona, Lake Hallie, and Chippewa Falls exceeds 100,000. What does this mean to the city dwelling astronomer? A lot of light pollution and not that many stars in the night sky to gaze upon. Here is a visual example of what I see when I look up while standing in our parish parking lot.
Let's compare the night skies over St. Olaf with those over another parish I once served - St. Raymond of Penafort in Brackett, Wisconsin. This rural parish is situated about twenty minutes east of Eau Claire. When the security lights turn off for the evening, the night sky reveals a far more starry reality from their parking lot. Here is another visual example of what can be seen when looking up in St. Raymond's parking lot. (Incidentally, I took these images at St. Olaf and St. Raymond on the same night with the same camera setup.)
When looking at the difference between these skies, the call to reduce light pollution should be "case closed." Right? Just look at the radical difference in our ability to see stars in both image sets. The question that begins this piece then reemerges: Why is it a challenge to convince people that light pollution is a problem?
To answer this question, we only need to ask, Where are these pictures being taken? The answer - In the parking lot of two Catholic Churches. Though the stargazing priest who has served at both parishes may enjoy a dark Church parking lot for stargazing purposes, the parishioners who would be coming to a Mass after dark, along with the Diocesan lawyer and said Pastor, would also appreciate parking lot lighting that made visibility clear and consistent. Whether it be for reasons of protecting people from those who may be hiding in the shadows or simply being able to negotiate the slight elevation of the curb between the parking lot and the sidewalk, the desires of a stargazing priest will always be trumped by the necessary concerns of public safety. Still, when you see what can be done from those same parking lots with images of the night sky stretching over these sacred spaces like a banner, one might also ask, Is there a way we can have both a dark sky and a safe parking lot?
The below pictures are the above pictures greatly enhanced and rotated with the visible stars eroded to make them look more like other images of edge on galaxies.
In addition to practical concerns that would make people believe that light pollution is a regrettable, but necessary reality, many see light pollution as a means of making the night more beautiful. I was confronted with this challenge while doing some astrophotography at the farm of a good friend that lives about 10-15 minutes outside of Eau Claire. Some very low, fast moving clouds rolled in, leading me to think, "Ah, here's a perfect way to show how light pollution impacts the night sky!" However, when I showed these pictures to some friends and staff members, the first reaction was, Wow! I never realized light pollution was that beautiful! Now, in their defense, most of them knew that I was writing a piece on light pollution, so the comment was often given as a playful jab. At the same time, I know that I would have gotten similar responses from others I knew who were not astronomy enthusiasts or knew I was putting this piece together. In short, strike two in making my argument against light pollution. (I didn't even want to show them pictures I took of the Pablo Center, the new performing arts center in the heart of downtown.)
Is trying to fight light pollution a lost cause? Do safety concerns deem light pollution a regrettable necessity? And does artistic lighting actually bring more beauty to the night than do the stars above? Is there a way we can have the light we need, enhance the appearance of our downtowns, and protect the night sky? I would argue that there is a way to accomplish all three goals (and many more not mentioned).
Three of the first four Faith and Astronomy Workshops, hosted by the Vatican Observatory Foundation, contained presentations from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). They are an organization that not only promotes the protection of dark sky areas, but provides scientific research into the impact of light pollution on the health of humans and wildlife, the dangers that using to much light can create for public and personal safety, and how dark sky approaches can actually save communities a great deal of money in electricity usage while achieving better, more consistent lighting for safety concerns. Every time I heard their presentation, I thought, "Why don't people know how much benefit there could be from using lighting that is dark-sky friendly?" I would highly recommend you dig around on their webpage to learn how you and your community can protect the skies above while also protecting the people who look up from below.
Spiritual Exercise: When was the last time you were able to go out and enjoy the beauty of a dark sky? Do you live somewhere that allows for easy access to a starry night? Does where you live make gazing upon the stars next to impossible? Are there simple, yet impactful ways that you can promote dark sky practices in your community? Pray with these questions. Learn about the IDA. And, together, let us protect one of the most beautiful treasures God has given us: The ability to gaze upon creation itself.
Below is a video put together by National Geographic that emphasizes what I find to be the most compelling argument to protect the night sky - Giving people of all ages the opportunity to experience Awe and Wonder gazing at God's creation, while also realizing we are a part of God's creation.