The 5,000 Star View: How Social Media is Helping to Save the Night Sky

Earthzine2017 Monthly Focus Topic, Original, Themed Articles

Two photographers/filmmakers have taken a unique approach to raising awareness of skyglow, the unintended harmful effects of light pollution.

The Milky Way visible over a tipi village in Montana. Image Credit: Skyglow

Two photographers have traveled more than 150,000 miles and taken 3 million photos to raise awareness of light pollution in North America. Harun Mehmedović and Gavin Heffernan started the Skyglow Project in 2015, using social media as a primary tool to reach and educate communities about light pollution.

Light pollution refers to the adverse effects that come from excessive use of artificial light. Artificial lights often point upwards and, unshielded, these lights obscure views of the stars, a phenomenon referred to as skyglow. Besides making astronomers’ jobs harder, light pollution can negatively impact humans, animals, and insects. Skyglow can affect circadian rhythms and lead to reduced sleep. It can also increase the risk of obesity, breast cancer and depression, disrupt ecosystems by making prey more visible to the predator and confuse baby turtles and birds, who rely on natural light for their migration and movement.

Skyglow even affects underwater ecosystems; it thwarts zooplankton feeding patterns, leading to increased algae blooms, and puzzles coral reef species that rely on moonlight to reproduce. When it comes to the night sky visibility, 99 percent of Americans live in light-polluted areas. Of that 99 percent, 80 percent are no longer able to see the Milky Way or celestial bodies that are not extremely bright.

Artificial lights also exacerbates air pollution. A 2010 study showed that the glare from streetlights interfered with nitrate radical in the atmosphere, a naturally occurring process where nitrogen oxide interacts with harmful chemicals in the atmosphere and “cleans” them. This interference, combined with other factors such as poorly aimed streetlights, wastes about $3 billion worth of energy in the U.S. annually.

Skyglow has many other documented impacts, and according to several researchers, is easy to eliminate without spending billions of dollars. Despite the ease with which the problem can be addressed, it remains a problem. Mehmedović and Heffernan say this is because of the approach that others take to remedying light pollution.

Mehmedović comments that many groups have lobbied for the issue, but few have focused on invoking the emotional aspect of looking up at a night sky.

“As filmmakers, we can use visuals to tap into that emotion and imagination and inspire people to save this endangered resource,” he said.

A time-lapse shot in Death Valley showing the stars’ positions as the Earth rotates. Image Credit: Skyglow

To that end, Heffernan and Mehmedović aim to make videos that tell the “story” of a night sky. They use a Sky Guide app to find where stars are at any given point and predict where the Milky Way can be viewed with ease. This helps determine where the best skies will be. Mehmedović and Heffernan also use the Bortle Scale, which categorizes night skies from dark to light. In general, being in an elevated area on a new moon night with clear skies makes for a sky that is so naturally bright that it casts shadows.

Next, the duo travels to the place and maps out what corners of the sky they want to cover. They set up six or seven cameras at once, then take several 25-second exposure photographs. After that, the pictures are animated together to create a video.

The final product is posted to the project’s social media pages to be viewed, commented on, and shared.

Making the videos started as a hobby; the friends took pictures and made timelapses of night skies and posted the pictures on their personal social media accounts. Soon, however, people started paying attention.

“Is that real?” one comment read. Another person added, “No way, can you see that many stars?”

Heffernan says: “People hadn’t seen night skies like that in places that they lived. To them, it was like seeing an endangered animal in a zoo.”

Mehmedović and Heffernan crowdfunded their project on Kickstarter in 2015, gathering 90 percent of their funds from others sharing their work on social media channels.

This fulfilled the first step in the project’s mission of raising awareness. The following steps, which included making personal changes and becoming an activist, built on this one. And, so far, the videos have been quite successful.

Heffernan and Mehmedović say they’ve heard from many people in “dark sky towns” recognized by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA).

Towns that use streetlights that point downward, are yellow or orange or rely on motion sensing, for instance, can receive and IDA designation.

In Borrego Springs, California, a dark sky town, one of Heffernan’s videos reached 1 million views and, in 2014, California State Sen. Joel Anderson awarded Heffernan a Senate Certificate of Recognition for his work in raising awareness of skyglow.

Stars and celestial bodies visible over park in Borrego Springs, California. Video Credit: Skyglow

To continue engaging the public, Heffernan and Mehmedović host events where they educate people about light pollution. They have culminated their three-year journey by publishing, “Skyglow,” a book that contains all the images and information they have gathered about the pristine night skies they want to bring back.

The book starts with the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, California that knocked out power across the city. To avoid falling structures, people rushed out of their homes, but stopped in their tracks. Used to a light-polluted sky, many people were shocked to see the stars and Milky Way. Many were so shocked they called emergency centers reporting a strange silver thing in the sky.  

Sanna Darwish is a student science writer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and a senior hearing and speech sciences major at the University of Maryland.