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How cities and light pollution are ruining the wonder of the night sky

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Skyglow, an incredible book of time-lapse photos, illustrates the beauty of the night sky, and what’s at risk

A shot from the recent POLI’AHU Hawaii timelapse.
Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinovic

Photographers Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinovic do a lot of work after dark. In their new book, Skyglow, the duo, who met studying film in Los Angeles, show off a breathtaking array of time-lapse images and astral photography that capture the beauty of the night sky (it’s easy to see why the Rolling Stones even used some of their images as visuals for a recent tour). Their long-exposure images, set in exotic locales across the globe, chosen to avoid the glare of artificial, showcase the majesty of the cosmos, as the delayed snap of the shutter allows the light of stars and moons to flood in, to often dramatic impact.

Equally as dramatic, however, is how their technique can, in certain cases, capture the increasingly bright and ever-present light of human civilization. Bigger cities and brighter bulbs have effectively robbed many of us of clear views of the night sky, a fact which forms a somber undertone to the pair’s new publication.

“Since 1947, light pollution has increased 50% a year,” says Mehmedinovic. “It’s growing significantly.”

The exponential growth of light pollution shows how modern life is robbing us of views of the night sky.

In addition to a growing population and bigger and bigger cities, one of the prime culprits behind brighter evenings is a new type of lighting. The large-scale switch over to LED lights has been a boon for sustainability, since they consume less electricity. But because they also shine brighter and cover different parts of the light spectrum, they block the light from the night sky much more effectively than traditional bulbs.

“They actually drown out the stars even more,” says Mehmedinovic. “You used to be able to see a few things in the sky above New York City 20 years ago, but after the LED conversion, you can’t really see anything.”

The idea of the book was to create a narrative about the night sky through photography, from mankind’s early impressions to today’s struggle with light pollution.

Concerns about light pollution aren’t just about aesthetics. Scientists have just begun to understand the potential biological impact of brighter nights, especially on plants, animals, and the ecosystem, according to Heffernan.

It’s becoming a large issue, which inspired the photographers to turn their work, which they have also chronicled on their website and on Instagram, into a way to bring more attention to the problem. Their book was released in concert with the International Dark Sky Association's Dark Sky Week, which raise awareness of the issue and solutions. By highlighting the beauty of the night sky, they also highlight the wonder and awe that may be at stake if we don’t make a more concerted effort to address light pollution.

The Bortie Scale measures the night sky’s brightness.

Many municipalities have taken action against excessive light pollution, banning billboards, installing lights with motion triggers, timers, and shields, and in a handful of cases, even becoming official dark sky communities (a development that has helped grow the nascent field of astrotourism, where travelers flock to remote vantage points offering a clear look at the Milky Way). The issue is a relatively recent one, but the photographers have found it’s one that really strikes a chord.

“We’ve learned that the issue is much more universal than we thought,” says Heffernan. “By getting out there, traveling the world, and doing this project, we’ve realized that so many people care about this. It’s really become a hot button issue.”