Light pollution puts Milky Way out of sight for most people in Britain

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The Independent Online

The opportunity to gaze at a star-filled sky is being lost to millions of people across Britain because of a massive increase in the use of artificial light in the past decade.

The opportunity to gaze at a star-filled sky is being lost to millions of people across Britain because of a massive increase in the use of artificial light in the past decade.

New maps based on satellite data show that the most rural areas, such as Cumbria and Northumberland, have seen the amount of ambient light at night grow by up to 10 times. For those living in and around some cities, five of the 12 best-known constellations have become entirely invisible, and the remaining seven have "missing" stars too dim to be seen against the increasingly bright background. Overall, light pollution means half the British population has never seen the Milky Way – our own galaxy.

Launching a campaign yesterday against "Night Blight", the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and the British Astronomical Association (BAA), representing thousands of amateur astronomers, insisted that the trend could be reversed "without a single light being turned off". Sir Max Hastings, the CPRE's president, said: "It's not difficult – by simply pointing lights down we can reduce light pollution, without much bother and without spending huge amounts of money."

Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, said: "For many people it's a shock if they go somewhere that's really dark, such as the Scottish Highlands, to really see the stars. But the stars are part of our environment. Just as I am not a bird-watcher but I would feel deprived if I couldn't hear songbirds in my garden, I think people are being deprived because they can't see the real night sky from their gardens."

The campaign has the backing of a number of earthbound stars, including the Queen guitarist Brian May, who was studying for a PhD in astrophysics before he became a musician. "I remember as a very small child being blown away by looking up into the night sky and wondering what it was all about," he said. "I think kids, particularly, have a right to see the night sky."

The writer Terry Pratchett, an amateur astronomer, added: "I am driven to fury at the way we so stupidly and wastefully pollute our skies ... Light pollution is as mindless as Muzak, and harder to escape."

The CPRE calculates that there are 6 million road lights – many overdue for maintenance – on Britain's roads that could be altered to emit light more accurately, thus saving energy and money.

The CPRE and astronomers are to press the Government to define light pollution as a nuisance, as has already been done in the Czech Republic and in parts of Spain and Italy.

They are also pressing DIY chains to stop selling over-strength security lights, although only B&Q has so far agreed. Bob Mizon, of the BAA's Campaign for Dark Skies, said: "Many of those security lights are 200-watt bulbs but the most powerful lighthouse in the UK only has a 1,000-watt bulb."

The analysis, by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, looked at US military satellite pictures of light emitted from each square kilometre of land and sea around the UK. It found that the land area of England experiencing severe light pollution grew by 17 per cent between 1993 and 2000 while rural areas with truly dark skies shrank by 27 per cent.

A separate survey by the electricity generator Powergen found that almost every British child had never experienced total darkness. The study found that 98 per cent of children were not kept in the dark, and eight out of 10 parents said they surrounded their children with a constant source of artificial light.

But that could have adverse effects, warned Dr Chris Idzikowski, director of the Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service. "Exposure to constant artificial light may reduce levels of melatonin, which regulates the body's inner clock. This could lead to a disruption of sleeping patterns, hyperactivity and may have a negative impact on a child's health."