When I See Stars

I had no idea how critical the night sky was to our planet until I attended the first “Astronomy Festival” at Badlands National Park this Summer.

As the Earth’s population has grown exponentially and humans have increasingly “lit up” their environments, the night sky has disappeared all around the world. If you have not had the joy of seeing the Milky Way or a shooting star you might not spend much time pondering the night sky. However, at the Astronomy Festival I learned that we should not just be concerned about keeping the sky dark to preserve the twinkling stars at night. It turns out that the dramatic increase in usage of manmade lighting is having detrimental effects on wildlife on a dramatic scale.

There is a constant struggle of balance between man and migration. In fact, each year thousands of birds die because their migratory patterns are altered by newly constructed skyscrapers. Tall lights cause owls to create shadows on fields as they swoop down on their prey, thereby warning their prey into hiding before the owl can catch them. As a result, the owl cannot find an available food source and is forced to leave for less developed areas or starve. Newly hatched sea turtles have just a few minutes to make it to the ocean before they perish. They normally use the reflection of stars and the moon on the water to help them navigate toward the ocean. However, brightly lit condos, hotels and beachside restaurants have destroyed their navigation system and baby sea turtles are dying in high numbers as a result. These examples are alarming, but it is not just wildlife suffering from the loss of the night sky. Without being able to see the wonders of the cosmos, man loses a sense of connection to the great mystery of life.  
 
Bringing together space science professionals and enthusiasts, local community members and visitors, the Astronomy Festival demonstrated how we live in a vastly complex, and mysterious world. It is not only the land that is worth protecting, but also our night sky and all it impacts.

The Astronomy Festival was made possible largely in part through an America’s Best Idea grant from the National Park Foundation. To learn more click here.

*Photo: Visitors viewing the sun through special telescope at the Astronomy Festival, Badlands National Park/Credit: Carolyn Hill.