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Falling in Love with the Dark (nautil.us)
205 points by dnetesn on Sept 10, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments

Once a year, some buddies from all over the country and I get together to spend a week in the deserts of Southern Utah and the Colorado Plateau. It's a driving adventure (we all drive old Land Rovers) but nights are spent in improvised campsites, as far as we can get from paved roads and civilizations. The rocks and the trees are beautiful but the night sky...the night sky is indescribable. We sit on our chairs around the campfire and watch the satellites and cross-country flights pass overhead. The Milky Way so bright that it almost lights the land like a moon. Some evenings, I set up my camera and tripod and do my best attempt at night photography. Here are few of my favorites:

Cedar Mesa, Utah: https://www.flickr.com/photos/defender90/5551249303/in/set-7...

La Sal Mountains, Utah: https://www.flickr.com/photos/defender90/5114443927/in/set-7...

Comb Ridge, Utah: https://www.flickr.com/photos/defender90/6305032340/in/set-7...

Moonrise over Canyonlands National Park: https://www.flickr.com/photos/defender90/6940180396/in/set-7...

Elk Ridge campsite, Abajo Mountains, Utah: https://www.flickr.com/photos/defender90/8762668240/in/set-7...

La Sal Mountains, Utah: https://www.flickr.com/photos/defender90/5114444819/in/set-7...

A couple of summers ago I did a week on the Grand Staircase. Some of the stuff that truly astounded me, even after spending a lot of time in the rural midwest as child:

* Lying on my back and looking straight up presented more stars than I usually see in the entire sky.

* When the moon rose, it woke me up with the brightness of it. The first night I thought it was morning for a moment.

* Watching satellites go overhead wasn't reserved for just the very reflective ones.

* I thought I'd seen the milky way before. I was very wrong.

* The sparks and tiny flame from a cigarette lighter were painfully bright. The glow of a cigarette lit my companions' faces when they had one (dimly but noticably).

* Staying one night at a motel in the tiny town of Kanab before heading back to civilization, I had trouble sleeping because it was so bright. Staying the next night in Vegas was even worse.

How can I learn to prepare for something like this? How can I find out where the good spots are? My wife and I would love to go on such an adventure, but we fear for things like bears and other predatory animals.

Living in San Diego, I love having the option of driving out to Anza Borrego to see the stars.

If you haven't seen them in a true "dark sky" setting, I highly recommend it. You'll be shocked how many of them you see and how there are just layers and layers of them everywhere and being able to see the milky way with the naked eye is incredible. I doubt it comes close the so-called "Overview effect" Astronauts talk about when they see the Earth from... not the Earth, but it is still quite powerful and humbling when you're used to looking up and seeing half a dozen stars on a good night.

Going out to sea and looking up was an experience I'll never forget.

This. Even with the lights on the decks of the cruise ship I was still able to see layers and an expanse of stars I haven't seen since I tramped around the the Nelson Lakes area of New Zealand when I was younger.

Yeah. That's how you realize why people could navigate at Sea using stars long before we had any GPS or reliable cartography.

The worst part is that we're failing even on simple things that could reduce light pollution, such as using outdoor fixtures that direct the light only downward.

The International Dark Sky Association exists, but I don't know how successful they have been. http://www.darksky.org/lighting-codes/simple-guidelines-to-l...

Hubert Reeves sums it up really well:

"The first effect, and I would say the most dramatic, is that it steals the sky. People no longer see the sky. There are many people out there who have never seen the Milky Way, who have never seen zodiacal light. Sometimes I ask people, "Do you know what zodiacal light is?" Three-quarters of them do not know, they have never even heard the word. It's part of something that held great significance in the past. It's contact with the sky. It's that feeling you get when you go outside on a beautiful starry night, Milky Way and all. That contact was present throughout humanity until only a few decades ago."

We greatly underestimate the fundamental and mystical implications of these changes on the inhabitants of this planet.

I've spent the last few years in big cities; Austin, LA, NYC. A few weeks ago I took a brief trip to a small town in Idaho with negligible light pollution.

I had completely forgotten the look of a clear night sky. It was absolutely breathtaking. I felt as though I was going to fall away from the earth.

I truly hope that in the long term, humanity can build infrastructure that doesn't destroy access to the night sky.

Super nice article. I miss the Canadian Northern rural nightskies very much so I was pleasantly surprised last weekend when the sky was completely clear while camping somewhere in the mountains in Romania. I never realized that being in a valley the mountains are even more effective at blocking out any light pollution than mere distance will do and the view was absolutely spectacular.

Living out of a very tiny RV for a couple of days is an exercise in compromise but the rewards are definitely worth it.

In Tucson AZ we have few streetlights. It's nice. You can take a walk and see better because your night vision is not constantly being reset. A 45min drive up any of our local mountains and the Milky Way is bright and center, satellites whizzing by.

The International Dark Sky Association (unsuprisingly based here) has resources for people interested in reclaiming their night sky: http://www.darksky.org/

Factoid: At Kitt Peak National Observatory, a working astronomical site, you get more light pollution from the Homeland Security / Border Patrol checkpoints that you do from the nearby city of Tucson.

1,000W bulbs: Just Say No.

I was in the Santa Ritas last weekend and noticed the same thing. The local interrogation point outshined the city. Our tax dollars at work.

I was hiking Mount Whitney a few weeks ago and by far the most spectacular site was the sky at night. Better than highest peak or the purest mountain lake, the sky was unlike anything I'd ever seen. Definitely worthy of planning a vacation around.

I didn't realize how important it was for me to see the night sky until I moved to a densely populated area. It's weird to look up and see nothing but a glowing haze.

It's kind of terrifying to visit my parents place in the countryside. I actually need my headlights. While it's not going to be safe for everyone, I could very well drive across my brightly-lit metro area with no driving lights, in the dead of night, with little issue.

On the other hand, out under the clear sky, I'd be off the road in under a mile without lights. It's Dark out there.

This is a problem I feel very deeply about. When I was a kid, I would look up in the sky and see stars. Now, all I see is an orangish hue. Spotting even a single star at night these days is a difficult task.

I sincerely hope we can solve this problem of lights spoiling the night sky for everyone. Especially street lights, those are the worst. I hate having to go to a forest to be able to see the sky I could once see from the roof of my house.

I spent a few weeks trekking trekking around the northern part of India a few years ago, around the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range. Miles from anything, only access is by foot and the only power was available by a generator that ran from 6am-10am and 6pm-10pm. It's amazing what is out there.

What amazed me the most was the number of shooting stars I saw, what I thought was a rare occurrence but if it is dark enough even the smallest particle of dust throws out an amazing glow as it enters our atmosphere.

For those of you in the Southern UK, I highly recommend a camping trip to Durdle Door. The camp site is a few hundred metres from the cliff edge and miles from any light pollution. Amazing views of the nigh sky from there too: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=durdle+door+night+sky&tbm=...

Thanks for posting this link, I now begin to understand what Shakespeare meant by 'spangled starlight sheen' [A Midsummer Night's Dream].

The City Dark is a pleasant documentary about the loss of our night skies and what it means for us and other animals. Great soundtrack.


Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1fTkF8PIu0

Here are good resources to find dark areas:

darksitefinder.com/maps.html (world coverage but not really detailed)

http://avex-asso.org/dossiers/pl/france/zoom/cdf-normale.htm... (France only, very detailed)

Attilla Danko has some really useful information on his website http://cleardarksky.com/csk/

He can generate clear sky charts for most of Canada and the U.S. You can see light pollution maps and there are links to this Google Maps light pollution overlay:


This is great, thanks.

I remember my first time watching the sky in pitch darkness! It was in death valley and the picture is so vivid in my memory. I was amazed, shocked and delighted all at the same time to see so many stars in the sky! It's a view I miss to this day.

Anyone knows what is a good place around the Seattle area to watch the sky at night? I know I'll probably have to drive quite a bit out of the city, but I'm looking for an option where I don't have to leave the state just for that :)

Note that I've done none of this, but if you're looking for "closest possible" I'd travel out to the Snoqualmie Pass area and head up something like NF-54 to Stampede Pass. Probably still too much light, but it's an hour one-way. Don't try it in the winter, and a Subaru Outback-ish vehicle would be preferred (though I saw a late-model Mustang come off Stampede Pass this past week). One of these days I'll take my R1200GS motorcycle up there in the middle of the night.

If you're looking for more dark, but more travel time, just about anything between Snoqualmie Pass and Spokane and off I-90 a ways should offer a good bit of darkness. Think US-97 toward the Canadian border: open high desert, not a lot of civilization.

Does anyone know of a site that lists good stargazing spots? Whenever I try to look I get some "top 10 places in the world." Well, that doesn't help me since I'm looking somewhere that is close enough to drive to.

Great! Thanks!

I'd think the backcountry in any wilderness area not near a large city would be pretty good.

As a kid, I loved backpacking in the Olympic National Forest (Washington state) for this reason...

This is "Seven Lakes Basin", which I personally guarantee to be completely awesome: https://goo.gl/maps/pQKs5

I've been out backpacking in the wilderness plenty before. I was/am looking for something that is the least amount of light pollution I can find in a reasonable distance. There seems to be good resources out there for other attributes of an area so I thought someone might have gathered data on light pollution.

Hmm, you'd think it would make a good Google-maps overlay.

[It occurs to me that light-pollution is 5D data—geographic coordinates + incident angle/direction + intensity—so I guess they'd have to take an average intensity over the sphere or something...]

This was one of the things that bothered me the most about moving to a city as an adult. I didn't miss the people I grew up with (heeeeell no), but I noticed the lack of a night sky actually started to wear on me.

I remember being out in the isle of Skye for a couple of nights during the summer and thats honestly when I thought, man there a lot of stars in the sky.. Somethings you can't notice in a city..

Great article. Recently subscribed to the quarterly prints from Nautil.us, they are incredibly well put together and look fantastic.

I used to get a pretty clear view of the milky way in Flag Staff, AZ a decade back. I wonder if that is still possible now.

Even I, an ancient wizard, am boggled by this. Why have we squandered our night skies?

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