March 25, 2015 8:00 pm

The Problem of Light Pollution from a Different Perspective

With International Dark Sky Week coming up starting April 13, this week’s guest blog post is by Don Jensen, an astro-landscape time-lapse photographer based out of Seattle, WA who is using his camera to focus attention on the extent of light pollution. One of the driving forces inspiring Don to take on the journey of documenting light pollution in the Northwest was the chapter “Let There Be Dark” in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book, Death By Black Hole. You can see more of Don’s work here and see a video he made on the subject of light pollution (complete with majestic footage the outdoors and the night sky) here.

Photo of light pollution as seen in the Seattle Metro area from Mount Si, taken by Don Jensen.

Seattle Metro from Mount Si. Credit: Don Jensen.

Light Pollution. We’ve heard about it. We’ve talked about it. We’ve seen the pictures from space, and we have seen flat black starless skies from within our cities. As a society we have come to expect that we can’t see the stars at night, because that is just how its going to be. It’s part of being an advanced civilization, right?

This is a concept that I am working on challenging.

The movie Contact has a great definition of what it means to be an advanced civilization, “efficiency functioning on multiple levels and in multiple dimensions.” I always return to this quote on any conversation about light pollution because what I have seen begs the question of how advanced we are as a society. But then, I have had a rather unique view of the issue.

The Cascade Mountains of Washington state have presented me with an opportunity to document the issue of light pollution from an angle rarely seen. By ascending these peaks, I have been able to capture the extent to which our cities are glowing from a distance.

From 8,000 feet on Mount Rainier, I have photographed the city of Portland, Oregon glowing from 100 miles away. From the various peaks of the North Cascades, I have photographed cities glowing all along the I-5 corridor. The entire Seattle metropolitan area can be seen glowing all throughout the night from multiple mount locations around the Cascades.

Photo showing light pollution from Portland, taken from Mount Rainier by photographer Don Jensen.

Portland from Mount Rainier. Credit: Don Jensen.

It’s important to understand that this is caused by all of the light that we are aiming upwards and outwards. By doing nothing more than using inefficient lighting strategies, we are creating massive light domes over our cities that can be seen from 100 miles away or more.

The glow from our cities is almost impossible to escape. This glow never ends. It never fades. It is constant. Most importantly, this is light that we are completely wasting. When we look at the problem from this perspective, it gives pause to wonder just how advanced we really are.

A photo by Don Jensen clearly showing the glow from the Seattle Metro area seen from Mount Pilchuck.

The glow from the Seattle Metro area is clearly visible from Mount Pilchuck. Credit: Don Jensen.

Every night, and all night, we are spending money and energy we do not need to be spending. We are unnecessarily burning carbon fuels. We are putting more carbon dioxide into the air than we need to. What we are getting in return is a diminished view of the night sky. That’s it. Put simply, we are going out of our way to cause a problem. This is why light pollution has become such an important topic for me.

To really have an impact on the issue of light pollution, we are going to have to be honest about what it really is. It is more than just “we can not see the stars from the cities.” Light pollution is one of the most telling problems of how willing our society is to accept inefficiency. It is possibly the single greatest visualization of our mark on the environment. That extra light that we see flowing from our cities represents carbon fuels we are needlessly burning to accomplish nothing more than depriving ourselves of a fantastic view of the night sky.

It’s time to ask ourselves, “Is this really efficient? More importantly, is this really a sign of an advanced civilization?”

Photo showing light pollution in the I5 Corridor from Sauk Mountain taken by Don Jensen.

I5 Corridor from Sauk Mountain. Credit: Don Jensen.

Get the most out of StarTalk!

Ad-Free Audio Downloads
Ad-Free Video Episodes
Stickers & Mugs
Live Streams with Neil
Priority Cosmic Queries
Early-Access Videos
Learn the Meaning of Life
...and much more