Where Did the Stars Go?

On a clear night a century ago, thousands of stars would have been visible to most people on the planet. Today, that’s only true for a minority — those living in rural areas far from urban settings. For the rest of us, the sky is relatively empty. Folks in the suburbs might see a few hundred; city dwellers, dozens. In the biggest, brightest cities, people are lucky to see a few. Our own lights have blocked them out.

Image Source: NASA via Visible Earth.

The image above shows our lights shining up into space. While large areas remain unlit, they are not where most people live.

In the Continental U.S., even the best star-gazing spots reveal fewer stars than they used to. In 1971, Tucson began regulating outdoor lights to protect the observatories located in the desert nearby. A recent study shows that those regulations, which have been strengthened over the years, have helped keep degradation of the night sky view in check.

Fantasy skyline with starlit skyRead my new column for NRDC’s This Green Life to learn more about light pollution, its effects on wildlife and human health, and and easy steps you can take to help reduce it through small changes to your outdoor lighting.


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14 Responses to Where Did the Stars Go?

  1. Thomas D'Angelo September 27, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    This is a fantastic article. Light pollution is completely unnecessary. We can simply turn building lights off [save energy], shine our lights down, and shield them so the don’t rob us of our night sky [starry nights], and can’t kill birds.
    There’s no reason to have any bad lighting, and wasted energy blotting out the stars and harming birds.
    Check out the International Dark Sky Association, they are other friends of our night sky, the stars.



    • Sheryl September 28, 2012 at 9:48 am #

      Thanks, Tom. I agree on all counts, and the International Dark Sky Association is a great organization to support.


    • Audrey Fischer September 28, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

      Tom, you are so right! Oh! I am so happy to see Sheryl’s article and blog : )

  2. Bonniealicia September 27, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    .and in the vast age of this planet, this has happened only in the last 100 or so years! Thank you for writing on this subject. It has been a major concern of mine. I have lived on a remote ridge for 21 years and watched the night landscape change. Just one example, when new people move in, they often put up a”security” light that blasts out into the dark night. We call them “insecurity” lights. I try to educate new developments to redirect lights down. Athletic fields are really bad. It costs them more money to light the sky, as well as the field, which resonates with them, once aware.

    • Sheryl September 28, 2012 at 9:59 am #

      Thank you for taking that education ‘job’ on. I’m sure it makes a huge difference.


  3. Josie Merck September 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    So glad you are covering this. Also see Ian Cheney’s excellent doc film The City Dark which touches on many of these Issues including women’s health.

    • Sheryl September 28, 2012 at 9:39 am #

      Josie, thanks for the recommendation. I came across the trailer in the course of researching this article and was wondering if the film was as good as it looked.I will order a copy.


  4. Kartik September 28, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Thanks for raising and addressing this important topic. However, I think you offered a dangerous message (which I see all too often in various articles and blogs):

    “While you’re waiting for local governments and corporations to get on board, you can get started at home.”

    The basic message here is that the only thing that we citizens can do is to throw up our hands and turn down the lights. On the contrary! Such calls to action must *lead* with calls to affect systemic change. It is my humble opinion that encouraging folks to grab at low-hanging fruit without effecting change has been the greatest disservice of the environmental movement. Why push your legislators to enact legislation curbing GHG emissions when you can just swap out your incandescents with CFLs?

    No reason not to engage in small home changes, of course, but the bang for the buck is so much greater when pushing for larger change.

    Just my two cents. 🙂

    • Sheryl September 28, 2012 at 10:29 am #

      Kartik, thanks for your comment. I can see why the word “waiting” would have irked you, but I didn’t mean it seriously. I think it’s very important to act on all fronts, including the personal.


    • Audrey Fischer September 28, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

      Yes, Kartik! Each one of us can contact our elected officials, local director of the dept of health, give public testimony, speak up at meetings. Starlight restoration is worth the effort of grassroots activism. The ecosystem does not shut down at sunset.


  5. Audrey Fischer September 28, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    Thank you Sheryl for this article about light pollution! Now, take it to the next step. Please, NRDC, help unite conservationist around the world to restore starlight in all its glory for this & future generations. Starlight must return over cities for the health of people & ecosystem, giving visible access to the Milky Way within an hour’s drive. Starlight is a marker of a healthy environment in which to live, work and play. Starlight is a treasure not to lose.

  6. Christina October 1, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    Wonderful article, thanks so much for sharing… EVERY little bit to spread the word. Education, education, education!

    I have friends using more of the d.lights — amazing little solar lanterns to bring in the house at night, to avoid turning on other lights — in the kitchen, for instance. SO MANY OTHER COUNTRIES are doing amazing things with alternative energies, mainly solar… And the U.S. remains ridiculously behind. Greed? Regardless, it’s long past the time to pay attention.

  7. Margaret October 31, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    Sheryl, this article really applies to us in Arizona. We have “dark skies” laws but many do not understand the importance is not just in the ambiance but as you pointed out many very good reasons.

    Please put a Facebook and Twitter links on your articles like you have on this page. I makes it easier for me to put on my website for our property owner’s association.

    Thank you for such great articles.

  8. Tess November 28, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    Sheryl, thanks so much for articulating this…a song I’ve been singing for years, usually to the choir. I’m convinced that there are profound disconnection effects on the human species through loss of the awe that comes from seeing the true night sky.
    Middle-aged as well, I grew up camping in dark places throughout the west. I know it established my deep love of astronomy today. But the real seal on the deal was seeing our galaxy from a remote location in New Zealand a dozen years ago. Pulled off the road for the night, dowsed the headlights, opened the door of the camper van, and was literally brought to my knees by the impact in the utter blackness of the intense clarity of billions of points and blobs of brilliance. Awe does not even come close to what I felt.
    All of your “journal of sorts” postings are so relevant and are always a gentle reminder for reconnection to the miraculous planet and cosmos we live in. Thank you!