When the lights go down, the show begins

By: Tiffany Esshaki, | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 12, 2017

METRO DETROIT — When was the last time you took a good look at the Milky Way?

If you’re reading this article in your newspaper at home, that means you likely live in Wayne, Macomb or Oakland counties, and the answer to the above question is: not recently.

That’s because southeast Michigan is bustling with people and commerce. Where there’s life, there’s light. The stars in the night sky get washed away by the glow of city life most evenings.

It’s not a problem unique to our region. In fact, International Dark Sky Week, which is scheduled for April 22-28 this year, is an annual campaign to bring awareness to light pollution during Global Astronomy Month. 

Cranbrook Institute of Science will celebrate Dark Sky Week during its Astronomy Day 1-4 p.m. April 29. In the institute’s famed planetarium, Head of Astronomy Michael Narlock will talk with visitors about what light pollution is and why it matters to all of us.

“Seeing the night sky is our connection to the universe that we’re a part of,” Narlock explained. “Imagine if you’ve never seen the stars at night or missed a comet that would normally be visible to the naked eye. I think when you lose that connection to the universe, you lose a bit of your humanity as well.”

Unlike other forms of pollution, light pollution doesn’t have obvious adverse effects on the planet. But not having a fully dark sky above our heads can impact us and the other beings we share the world with.

“It can impact nocturnal animals and our circadian rhythms,” Narlock said. “But the good thing is it can be easily fixed, and every little bit of effort to do that helps.”

We can all individually reduce our contribution to light pollution by shielding the light we use from leaking outdoors or up to the sky. Minimizing “light trespass,” according to the International Dark Sky Week website, means keeping light where it’s intended to go or eliminating it altogether when possible, like with motion detectors or timers. 

Street lamps are among the greatest offenders, Narlock said, with much of the light they produce glowing beyond the pavement and up to the stars. Simple “lids” can keep the light pointed downward, where it’s needed.

“You’ll notice on our campus, all of our street lamps essentially have a lid so the light bounces down to the ground, and no light goes upward. Some kids from (Detroit) visit us, and they’re in awe because they’ve never seen the sky like that,” he said. “But just south of us is a huge shopping center, and you can see this glow in the sky from the middle of campus.”

It’s tough to eliminate all light pollution in a highly populated area like metro Detroit. But until people, businesses and city planners all get on board with taming the glow, there are places just a short drive away where starry skies can be enjoyed.

Places like Port Crescent State Park, located in Port Austin, just at the tip of Michigan’s thumb region. From metro Detroit, the park is about a two-hour drive. But once you’re there, it’s like a whole new world.

“The closest town to us is Bad Axe, which isn’t really that big. Out here we have maybe one building, so at night it gets really dark,” said Betsy Kish, supervisor at Port Crescent State Park. “It’s mind-boggling when you go outside at night and there’s so much going on up above you.”

The park is one of several in Michigan to get an official Dark Sky Preserve designation. The title makes it easy for amateur stargazers and pro astronomers alike to see where the best places are in the state to catch a view of the cosmos. 

“People come out with these huge telescopes to enjoy (the view), and a lot of them appreciate that we’re so close to the Detroit area,” she said. “Depending on the time of year, you could see meteor showers or the Northern Lights for sure from our Birds of Prey Dark Sky platform. And you can definitely see the Milky Way. But it’s so quiet and peaceful out there in the dark, so it’s always beautiful.”

To learn more about what you can do to reduce light pollution, visit darksky.org or search social media for #IDSW2017.

You can learn about Cranbrook Institute of Science Astronomy Day at science.cranbrook.edu.