10 Shocking Facts About the Nighttime Sky From the Light Pollution World Atlas

Milky Way visible behind an old windmill in Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania

Michael Ver Sprill / Getty Images

A new map reveals startling statistics, like that 80% of North Americans can no longer see the Milky Way.

Imagine a world without stars. To ponder the twinkling sky is a pleasure humans have had ever since we’ve been able to tilt our heads back and look towards the heavens. But it’s a pleasure we’re at risk of losing; and in fact, for many it’s already gone.

The Impact of Light Pollution

The problem of light pollution – defined as the man-made alteration of night lighting levels – is a glaring one. But it’s a type of pollution more abstract than, say, a sputtering tailpipe or plastic in the ocean. It’s a type of pollution notable not for the visible signs of what is left behind, but for what is taken away – in this case, the natural lights of the nighttime sky. The stars, the planets, the glimmering dome that has inspired wonder for countless generations of sky-gazers. Meanwhile, light pollution wreaks all kinds of havoc on the natural world, from affecting birds' nighttime navigation to disorienting baby sea turtles to disrupting the mating patterns of fireflies.

Light pollution is one of the most pervasive forms of environmental alteration, but only recently has it been getting much attention from the scientific set. With the notable absence of a quantification of its magnitude on a global scale in mind, an international team of researchers has now created a world atlas of artificial sky luminance.

10 Sobering Facts About Light Pollution

The takeaways are breathtaking; the following are some of the more sobering statistics extracted from the research:

1. More than 80 percent of the world and more than 99 percent of the U.S. and European populations live under light-polluted skies.

2. The Milky Way is hidden from more than one-third of humankind, including 60 percent of Europeans and nearly 80 percent of North Americans.

3. Light pollution hurts otherwise pristine and deserted sites because it spreads hundreds of miles from its source.

4. The most light-polluted country on the planet is Singapore, where the entire population lives under “skies so bright that the eye cannot fully dark-adapt to night vision.”

5. Inhabitants of San Marino, Kuwait, Qatar, and Malta can no longer see the Milky Way.

6. 99 percent of people living in United Arab Emirates are unable to see the Milky Way, as are 98 percent of Israel and 97 percent of Egypt.

7. The largest swaths of land without Milky Way visibility include the Belgium/Netherlands/Germany transnational region, the Padana plain in northern Italy, and the Boston to Washington expanse. Other large areas where the Milky Way has been lost are the London to Liverpool/Leeds region in England, and regions surrounding Beijing and Hong Kong in China and Taiwan

8. If you live in or near Paris, to find the closest place with a large area without light pollution you'd have to travel over 500 miles to Corsica, Central Scotland, or Cuenca province, Spain.

9. If you live in Neuchâtel, Switzerland you’d have to travel 845 miles to northwestern Scotland, Algeria, or Ukraine to find pristine nighttime skies.

10. The countries with the least amount of people affected by light pollution are Chad, Central African Republic, and Madagascar, with more than three-quarters of their inhabitants living under pristine sky conditions.

Maybe where you live you can see the stars, did you know that they are such a threatened natural resource elsewhere? And the question can be asked of those who live in cities; maybe you can’t see much in the nighttime sky, but did you know the problem was so prevalent across the planet?

I don't expect to see much in the way of stars from my corner of New York City, but even so, I was shocked to see what a global issue this is. As the atlas researchers write in their report, “humanity has enveloped our planet in a luminous fog that prevents most of Earth’s population from having the opportunity to observe our galaxy. This has a consequent potential impact on culture that is of unprecedented magnitude.”

Indeed, light pollution has dramatic ecological consequences, creates public health issues and the lighting that causes it wastes important resources. The time has come to take light pollution by the horns. And unlike so many other complicated problems this planet is faced with, this is one that can be solved instantly; we just have to turn down the lights at night. Or better yet, just turn them off. An illuminated Empire State Building may be pretty, but the Milky Way beats it by a galaxy.