Thanks to light pollution one third of the world can’t see the Milky Way

Milky way

If you manage to spot the Milky Way the next time you’re lying on the dock late at night, count yourself lucky—for a third of the world, it’s not even possible.

That’s what a team of international scientists found after collecting data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, along with computer models of sky luminescence and measurements of sky brightness taken from the ground. Their findings were published in Science Advances on Friday.

Not surprisingly, they found the issue is far worse in some parts of the world than others. According to the study, 60 percent of Europeans and nearly 80 percent of North Americans can’t see the Milky Way, because it’s shrouded by artificial light.

But the most light-polluted country is Singapore, where the authors say the entire population lives under such bright skies that their eyes cannot fully adapt to darkness.

“Humanity has enveloped our planet in a luminous fog that prevents most of Earth’s population from having the opportunity to observe our galaxy,” the authors conclude.

Fabio Falchi, one of the study’s co-authors, described the results as “a huge cultural loss with unforeseeable consequences.”

Light pollution doesn’t just obscure our view of the cosmos—it can also have a profound effect on our health. For example, a 2007 study found that artificial light can alter our circadian rhythm and affect the production of certain hormones like melatonin and cortisol. 

These researchers found that people living in urban environments were impacted the most, but as light pollution creeps further into rural areas, it has biological consequences on wildlife too. For nocturnal creatures, artificial light can alter their nighttime environment by turning it to day. It also has a big impact on amphibians like frogs and toads, whose nighttime croaking is part of their breeding ritual, and a number of bird species, which migrate or hunt at night and use moonlight or starlight to navigate.

Canada didn’t top the list, but it’s certainly not free from light pollution, and if you’ve ever been in or around one of our country’s major cities, you probably know how hard it is to see the stars when you look up. There are, however, specific locations across the country that have been designated as Dark Sky Preserves. These are areas where no artificial light is visible and there are specific measures in place to educate and promote the reduction of light pollution.

Check out “The best night-sky views in Canada” to find out where you’re most likely to catch a glimpse of our galaxy.