December 31, 2006

Artificial light in the night sky

The last couple of nights the sky has been pretty bright, in an eerie or mystical sort of way. It has been cloudy, and the moon has been waxing, so I think a lot of it is moonlight. But I can't figure out how much might be artificial light reflecting back from the cloudy sky. We are close to shopping centers and a highway, so there is always some noticeable light in the sky when it is cloudy at night.

I was growing up when I first paid attention to light pollution in the night sky. We were close to the small town of Gray and a bit farther from the medium-sized city of Macon. I could see a little bit of pink haze around the horizon in the direction of each place. Either the light around Macon 15 miles away made a wider patch of light or I imagined it did since it was a bigger town.

Today whenever I visit some place situated outside of a town at night I'm surprised to see the clarity of the stars and the darkness of the sky, the way I grew up seeing it. That house was in an area so dark that when our neighbors across the street had a security light installed it changed everything at night. Even though their house was far away, it then stood out like a lighthouse at sea. Their light began to invade our house at night and distracted from any stargazing. It was no longer possible to see a sunrise in the same way.

I don't hate city lights, of course. My current house has a street light in the front, and we can see lights scattered all around from the neighborhood, an apartment complex, a shopping center, and an office park. Each fall I've noticed more lights are visible when the leaves are gone. But it is important to remember the natural state of affairs under nothing but starlight.

When we lived in Commerce we thought it was funny that Bill Anderson wrote "City Lights" there. The Commerce we knew was deserted at night with only enough street lights to see your way around. Maybe he embellished his inspiration by making "city light" plural.

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