Dark Night Skies
I’ve attended multiple dark-sky events (see They Closed Canada from February 2020) – either in national parks or national forests – as well as dark-surrounding events, such as caving (see Hidden Beauty from March 2012). Both explore their respective sciences and display of earth and sky, or geology and astronomy, and both assume a level of darkness. However, when exploring a cave, it becomes trite and expected that at some point the leader of the outing will turn off all the lights and all of us would-be explorers sit in total darkness attempting literally to view our hands in front of our faces. It is my least favorite aspect of cave tours. Got it. It’s dark, like absence of light dark. Let’s move on.
With night sky events, it is expected that all the surrounding lights will be extinguished, not for the lame thrill of sitting in darkness, but for the exquisite joy of being illuminated by the sparkles of light generated tens, hundreds, and even thousands of light years away. The absence of moonlight allows the brilliance of the Milky Way, distant constellations, and collections of stories built upon the mythology of the night lights to sprawl from horizon to horizon. The darker the surroundings, the brighter the lights shine. In the best night sky events, cloudless nights may be preferred, but a sporadic cloud may create a curious illusion: in the absence of ground light shining upward, clouds appear black as if plucked out of a lower cave and pasted as a shroud over a small fragment of the firmament.
Lightless Night Skies
Identifying constellations challenges many of us, as we try to spot a sign of the zodiac, or even just Ursa Minor. Unlike those who fist identified and labeled these connect-the-dot figures, we are greatly hampered by the presence of mostly artificial light that surrounds us and dulls our view of the archers and animals above us. In fact, a good measure of the level of light pollution in any given area may be judged on the clouds separating us from a view of Venus rising or a shooting star. The more ground light, those same black clouds in the dark night appear nearly white from the illumination beneath them. Even at night, clouds can be dark or white, but rather than evoke their inner accumulation, they merely reflect the brightness we toss their way.
Living in the Crescent City, night clouds always appear white. The ground clutter overwhelms the effort of a million distant suns. Even as we stand on the banks of the Mississippi River, lower than the levee blocking our neighborhood’s illumination, we struggle to see even a single offshoot from the Leonids meteor shower just upriver from New Orleans. Of the perks of the Big Easy – the food being number one on my reason-to-visit list – the ability to view the night sky appears nearly impossible. Just a few weeks after we pack up the remains of our Louisiana life and said adieu to the French Quarter, Hurricane Ida blusters and batters her way into the city, reminding everyone not just of the powerful force of nature, but what the sky can really look like in the absence of artificial light. Given the choices between the high mountains or the destruction of a Cat 4 storm, I’ll settle for my previous night sky adventures.