When was the last time you saw the stars? If you live in a heavily populated area, chances are it was a really clear night and all you saw was a muted speckling of lights across the heavens. To Sriram Murali, that's a travesty.
Murali is an analyst at Google who's also a serious amateur astrophotographer. Last year, when he showed his friends and colleagues a time lapse he had made of the night sky, they thought it was the work of Photoshop. He decided to prove them wrong by showing just how much of the night sky most of us miss. To do so, he spent three months making another time lapse—this one capturing the night sky at specific levels of light pollution, as defined by the Bortle Dark Sky Scale—a scientific standard for rating light pollution.
Murali chose nine locations across California and Oregon using the website Dark Site Finder, which lists a location's amount of light pollution. The difference is shocking. The farther Murali moved from the city, the less light pollution, and the more brilliant the skies became. The most remote location on his list, with no light pollution at all, was the Eureka Dunes in Death Valley. It took him and his wife 12 hours to get there, with the last two hours being on backcountry dirt roads. They didn't see another person for the last 50 miles. It was the most difficult part of the project, he says.
"Despite all this, I had never seen anything like it, and I’ve been to many dark sites. It was so dark I was able to walk at night without any light," Murali says. "It’s beyond imagination. The Milky Way was so bright that it cast shadows."
Besides limiting observation of the night sky, light pollution can disrupt ecosystems and have adverse health effects. Luckily, scientists say that it's one environmental problem that could have an easy fix, including turning off lights and using shields on street lights to direct their glow downward.
There's a real movement that advocates for preserving the sky for future generations. The International Dark-Sky Association, for one, is devoted to recognizing "excellent stewardship of the night sky" through a conservation program. To view the sky without pollution, you can head to 1 of 65 of the organization's certified "dark sky places," spread across six continents. They also provide recommendations for eco-friendly lighting and policy changes for national parks, private businesses, and government entities.
With more and more light pollution, astrotourism has grown in more remote places. The U.S. National Parks, some of the darkest places in the U.S., even have their own Night Sky Team to keep the skies looking starry and beautiful. Yet, ironically, astrotourism brings with it development, and—you guessed it—light pollution. It's a balancing act to make dark places accessible enough for people to enjoy them, without ruining the very thing they've come to see.
Light pollution is an issue close to Murali's heart, because he comes from a small town in India that's heavily light polluted. He only discovered his passion for the stars about five years ago. "If people were passionate about astronomy, they would treat other human beings better, they’d treat animals better. It would make for a much better world," he says. "The universe is so, so massive—we are just a tiny fraction of a dot in this whole universe. It makes us tiny and humble and brings people together. It's what unites us."
Murali is part of a growing movement to protect how we experience the night sky—reframing it as a natural resource that for too long has been left off the list of environmental treasures to conserve. "We always think of the great minds that gazed up at the night sky, that were inspired by it," he says. "I don’t want future generations to lose this touch, this connection, this identity."