There are only a handful of places left on the East Coast where it’s still dark enough to easily see the Milky Way without a telescope. A tiny island in Florida is the best of them: Tortugas Rock is 70 miles offshore from the nearest city.
A new video shows the spectacular view as part of Skyglow, a Kickstarter-funded project that’s documenting the last dark skies left in a light-polluted world.
“The East Coast is the worst light polluter on the planet,” says filmmaker Harun Mehmedinovic. “This is the biggest contrast.” The small island, now a national park that preserves coral reefs and some wildlife, is also home to a massive brick fort that served as a prison in the Civil War (even then, prisoners were impressed by the amazing night sky).
Around the world, about a third of people can no longer see the Milky Way from home; in the U.S., 80% of people can’t see it. A growing number of people have never seen anything approaching the skies shown in the video.
“The first question from many people is, ‘Did you guys animate that? Is it fake?'” says Mehmedinovic. (There are no special effects).
Mehmedinovic, who grew up in a rural part of Europe where the stars were easily visible, believes that humans lose something psychologically when the night sky is clouded with pollution. The constant glow of streetlights, buildings, and headlights also disrupts circadian rhythms, causing health problems like insomnia, and makes it harder for nocturnal animals to survive.
The problem may become worse with the growth of LED lights, which save energy but glow brighter (and bluer, making stars even harder to see). But some of the solutions are fairly simple: If streetlights are designed to point down instead of up, for example, that has a measurable effect.
“Light pollution is very manageable,” says Mehmedinovic, who partnered with the International Dark Sky Association on the project. “We look at what we do as kind of a first step for people to get intrigued and inspired, and then perhaps they can push for some of these changes in their local communities.”