Got Milky Way?

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come to you
From the Disney Movie ‘Pinocchio’

Meteors flaring across a night sky hold in wondrous delight a child lying on his back in the summer grass. Above is the Big Dipper and Polaris, the North Star, at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. It’s nearing the middle of August and the Perseid meteor shower is starting to peak with as many as a dozen or more blazing across the backdrop of the Milky Way.

It’s an idyllic scene. Too bad most Americans can’t share it.

A 2016 study by researcher Fabio Falchi of the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Thiene, Italy, showed that 80 percent of the United States emits so much manmade light that it obliterates a view of the night sky. The percentage of those who can see the stars continues to shrink. And, in areas once dark, blinking red lights on cell phone towers and wind mills, mar the beauty of the night sky.

Earth’s Solar System sits on one of the outer spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy. Our sun is one of an estimated 100 to 400 billion stars in the galaxy, which contains at least 100 billion planets. The hazy, milky light of those billions of far away suns shining give the galaxy its name. There are children living in American cities who may have never seen it.

Around America, cities are making efforts to reduce light pollution to give their residents a better view of the night sky. In Yuma County, Arizona, county officials are considering an ordinance aimed at reducing the amount of light generated in the community. Motivation for action is coming from citizens.

“Where I live right now you couldn’t pay me to move back into town, because I can sit in my yard and see millions of stars,” Supervisor Darren Simmons, who lives east of Yuma, told the Yuma Sun “And that’s why people move out into the country.”

In June 2018 the Kanab City, Utah, council passed an outdoor lighting ordinance protecting the natural darkness that makes its county “a great place to see stars.”

The ordinance was sponsored by the “Starry Sky Working Group” that helped educate the community on why seeing the stars at night was good policy.

“Three simple but very critical provisions of the ordinance set limits on brightness, require shielding, and keep colors in the warm white part of the spectrum, at 3000 degrees Kelvin or lower,” the International Dark Sky Association reports. Aiming lights downward reduces glare and light pollution.

Last year, Cook County, which includes Grand Marais and Lutsen in far northeastern Minnesota along the shores of Lake Superior, started promoting  “Dark Sky Season.” It was a celebration of the night sky and the Northern Lights. Duluth’s local chapter of the International Dark Sky Association hosted a “Celebrate the Night Sky Week.”

 “As people realize … this is an amazing resource, this is going to continue to grow,” Randy Larson, coordinator of the event, told Pam Louwagie of the Star Tribune. “There’s huge opportunity for every community around us. … It’s just a matter of turning the lights down and turning them in a way that isn’t disruptive.”

“It’s a huge waste of money. All the light that’s being sent up into the sky is just wasted light, wasted money, wasted energy,” Paul Bogard, author of “The End of Night” told Louwagie. “People who have grown up in the last 30 or 40 years and have never left the city have no idea what a real night sky is supposed to look like. … They think a couple dozen stars is a starry night.”

For decades, the Campaign to Protect Rural England has fought to keep the countryside darker. It “believes that darkness at night is one of the key characteristics of rural areas and it represents a major difference between what is rural and what is urban.”

“We’re concerned that, even in the depths of the countryside, genuine dark starry nights are becoming harder to find. Security lights, floodlights and streetlights all break into the darkness and create a veil of light across the night sky,” it says.  Light doesn’t respect boundaries, it invades spaces, blurring the night sky, obscuring even in the brightest stars.

Light pollution affects humans and the natural environment, disrupting behaviors, and negatively affecting physical and mental health. Humans don’t sleep as well; animal’s routines are interrupted with implications for their survival.

“…At the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature – in positive ways,” Richard Louv writes in his book “Last Child in the Woods.”

 “The health of the earth is at stake as well,” Louv writes. “How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, our homes – our daily lives,” he says.

Our peace of mind, our wellbeing, is found in the contact with nature, it is found in the night sky on a summer’s eve, a crisp fall night, in bitterly cold December darkness, and in spring’s awakening. It’s found in seeing the Milky Way. The Milky Way is found in rural places, if we preserve our dark skies.

“We’ve taken what was once one of the most common human experiences — walking out your door and coming face to face with the universe — and made that one of the most rare of human experiences,” Bogard said. “The night sky has inspired people forever: in science, religion, philosophy and art. And we’re losing that.”

In the 1990s, Jeff Goodby created the advertising slogan “Got Milk?” It is still considered one of the most successful and remembered campaigns of all time. The ad campaign featured a host of celebrities with milk mustaches including Jessica Alba, Elton John, Angelina Jolie, Tom Brady, Steven Tyler, Ron Howard, Mike Meyers, Jeff Gordon, Spike Lee, Kermit the Frog and the Simpsons.

Perhaps, if we could find the financial resources, rural American communities could start a “Got Milky Way?” campaign. Got a child? Want the child to see the amazing night sky? Want your children to grow up with a sense of wonder? Want your child to dream? Come to rural Minnesota. Get the Milky Way.

Got Milky Way? We can see a child wearing that t-shirt.

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