Scientists have a new term for expressing the feeling of loss that comes from losing the pristine dark skies that allow for good stargazing. They call it “noctalgia,” or “sky grief.”
Get out into the countryside or visit an observatory, experts advise
Dennis Kovtun · CBC News
Earlier this year, in a letter to the journal Science, two American astronomers introduced a new term to capture the loss of our ability to observe the night skies due to light pollution.
They called it “noctalgia,” or “sky grief.”
The letter’s authors — Aparna Venkatesan and John C. Barentine — say noctalgia represents more than the loss of pristine environment, but also the loss of heritage, identity, storytelling and ancient sky traditions.
Light pollution in Edmonton is significant, and the sense of loss is understood by members of the city’s stargazing community.
Sky grief: That feeling you get when you’re missing the stars
Featured VideoAcross Canada, it’s getting harder and harder to find truly dark places for skygazing within city limits. And some experts say that loss of real night impacts our moods, our culture, and our art.
Seen from space at night, Alberta’s capital — like many other cities — shines like a white blotch on a dark canvas.
Frank Florian, senior manager of planetarium and space sciences at Edmonton’s Telus World of Science, says he could understand someone who grew up under the beautiful dark sky in the country, or worked on a farm, away from the city lights, “kind of grieving” for it.
“You’re losing the ability to look up and appreciate the night sky,” Florian said.
In the city, you’ll see next to nothing, Florian said. Only the brightest stars are visible.
To see the starry night skies in their full splendour, it’s best to leave the city. After driving for about 30 minutes into the countryside, you begin to leave behind Edmonton’s light dome, and can see the sky that resembles a view you could see in a planetarium.
“When I go out, I always yearn to go back out, away from bright city lights, to do stargazing, because you just see so much more,” Florian said.
However, even in Edmonton, there’s a way to take a good look at the stars — a rather close look, in fact.
Steps away from the science centre, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Observatory houses a collection of telescopes that allow amateur astronomers to make detailed observations of the cosmos.
Some of the telescopes can be equipped with astrophotography cameras and used to take pictures of stellar objects.
During the fall and winter, the observatory is open to the public Friday and Saturday evenings, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Traditions already lost
Sherrilyn Jahrig, an amateur astronomer and writer in Edmonton, understands the sense of loss brought about by an inability to see the stars.
“I remember being on my grandparents’ farm and going outside to use the outhouse in the night, and the darkness with no moon was thick,” Jahrig said in an interview.
“I felt like I was actually kind of swimming through it. And the stars seemed so close to the ground.”
Some deep-rooted traditions are receding into oblivion due to light pollution, she said, such as knowing where you are at night, and determining time according to the season and the positions of the stars.
“That is something that most cultures have now lost,” she said.
“Some are trying to regain them after not having those stories preserved for some generations. And that has a tremendous effect on the culture because the sky at night acts as a library for cultures that have an oral tradition.”
Jahrig searched her own roots and family history to learn about her ancestors’ night sky traditions. She goes back to the star stories of the Irish, and examines star lore and myths of other cultures, to regain her connection with them.
A person observing a pristine night sky has a keen internal sense of time, she said.
The sky at night acts as a library for cultures that have an oral tradition.– Sherrilyn Jahrig
After a few hours of gazing at the stars, you get “a kind of vertigo” as you observe them slowly change their position as the earth rotates, she said.
The disconnection from night sky traditions due to light pollution impoverishes our society artistically, from music to the visual arts, Jahrig said.
If an artist never saw a starry sky, she wonders, how would she know how to paint it?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Kovtun is a journalist with CBC Edmonton, covering a variety of stories in the city. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.