Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Visitor's View: Light Pollution


Last updated 11/9/2023 at 2:05pm

Residents and frequent visitors to Borrego Springs understand the thrill of being able to see a night sky emblazoned by a sparkling overhead view of the Milky Way.

It's not that way in many places, and the bad news is that humanity is slowly losing the joy of pondering the beauty and mystery of a limitless heavenly view.

This first became apparent to me when a friend visiting from Munich, Germany commented that he had never seen the Milky Way.

Even in the countryside of many European cities, the glow of urban lights has choked the life out of the night sky, making it impossible to see meteor showers, comets, or the familiar constellations.

The good news is communities like Borrego Springs, surrounding Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and neighboring Julian have recognized the value of dark night skies and have done something to help preserve it by adopting regulations to reduce nocturnal light pollution.

The problem has gotten so concerning that according to astrophysicist Paul Sutter writing in, the issue of night sky pollution now has a name.

It is being called "noctalgia," which means night grief.

If you want to see this for yourself, drive to the top of a local mountain near urban areas, such as Palomar, or even Mt. Soledad in San Diego.

You will notice how hard it is to see stars and the vast landscape of urban lights below makes the reason obvious.

Additionally, the development of inexpensive LED lighting has often resulted in new urban construction being built with more and brighter lighting that is left on longer because of the reduced operational cost.

That's not the only problem.

Thousands of satellites now fill our skies, and this is impacting the purity of viewing.

"Those satellites don't just spoil deep-space astronomical observations when they cross a telescope's field of view; they also scatter and reflect sunlight from their Solar arrays," Sutter said.

This glut of heavenly clutter is causing an overall reduction in darkness in the night sky. Researchers have estimated that the most remote, dark sky locations are as much as 10 percent brighter than they were 25 years ago, and the problem continues to get worse.

While this presents obvious environmental concerns, including impacts on breeding cycles of many species, there are also deep cultural implications.

Imagine losing the ability to lay out at night on summer grass, share stories about the constellations and free the mind to fly into limitless space.

Or, how about the child-like wonder of a specular meteor shower, a stunning comet appearance or simply a dazzling Milky Way hanging over the Borrego Badlands?

What if two lovers, separated by thousands of miles, could not look skyward at night and wish upon the same bright star?

How many youngsters have been enthralled by a night sky view that was so impactful that they went on to become astronomers or aerospace engineers? Think of the songs that have looked to the heavens to express deep love and affection and concepts such as beauty and infinity.

Thankfully, efforts to combat noctalgia have caught fire and are spreading worldwide.

Efforts, like what Borrego Springs did to earn a "Dark Sky Community" designation from the International Dark Sky Association are being copied and embraced by other communities.

Others are working to save existing dark sky locations through the creation of dark-sky reserves.

And while likely many years away, there is discussion to deal with satellite pollution through international efforts and the development of new technologies.

For those Borrego Springs visitors who only enjoy day trips, consider adding at least one overnight stay to see something spectacular you will not see in urban centers.

A clear night sky is wondrous and magical and touches deep into your soul.

It's something everyone should experience.

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