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April 24, 2008

The Brightest Spots on Earth

Posted: 10:57 AM ET

NASA's remarkable Earth Observatory site has posted a series of photos taken from the International Space station. These pics, taken from a camera designed by former ISS astronaut Don Pettit during his stay aboard the Station in 2002-2003, show some of the brightest spots on the planet.

Jiddah and the Muslim Holy City of Mecca as seen at night from the International Space Station. Source: NASA

Tokyo, the U.S. East Coast, the major cities of the U. K. and Ireland, the Loop in Chicago, and the brightly-lit docks of Long Beach, CA are among the bright spot. But NASA awards the dubious distinction of the Brightest Spot on Earth to the Las Vegas Strip. Why am I not surprised?

But (you knew this line was coming) what's lit in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas.

Light Pollution is an aesthetic problem. If you live in an urban area, chances are it's been a while since you've seen a star-filled sky, a planet, or a meteor. But so much of our outdoor lighting is pointed up toward the sky - where it does no good - that light pollution has a direct link to what goes into your lungs.

The International Dark-Sky Association, a two-decade-old, Tucson-based nonprofit, has petitioned the US EPA to recognize light pollution as an "official" pollutant. They estimate that Americans spend several billion dollars a year, and generate an extra 38 million tons of carbon dioxide, in addition to the other pollutants associated with generating power, through wasteful lighting pointed at the heavens.

IDA advocates a switch to more efficient lighting: The kind that directs the light toward the things that need to be lit. Not only would it be one more little piece in the puzzle for reducing global warming, but it might make you see stars.

–Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science and Tech

Filed under: environment • International Space Station • NASA • Space

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Jenni   April 24th, 2008 12:10 pm ET

I've never understood why anyone would fight against this. It saves cities, companies, and private owners money by allowing them to use less electricity to light the same area. It's better for the environment. It reduces our dependency on foreign oil. And it makes the skies prettier. The only cost is the effort to put a little "hat" over your outdoor lightbulbs - easy enough to do during any building or lighting maintenance. What cost is that, compared to the benefits?

Shawn   April 24th, 2008 2:06 pm ET

This is interesting entry. I'm glad to know that the issue of light-pollution is being taken seriously. It's always bothered me when I look toward the heavens and can see only three or four stars.

The writing style could be improved though; Perhaps a little more copy editing before posting would help. The first sentence has some problems–Tokyo is listed twice, and it should read: "bright spots" not "bright spot". Beginning sentences with "But" instead of joining the sentences together properly makes it hard for me to read. I found myself getting hung up on the English and grammar issues too much. There are still readers out here who pay attention to such pedantic details, and like to read well-written quality content without stopping and wondering why things are capitalized when they should not be and why it's "it's" with an apostrophe intead of "its".


Carl   April 24th, 2008 3:53 pm ET

All energy use is pollution in some manner because we're removing one thing and putting it into another. The "pollution" we see is the unused excess energy.

Best way to combat pollution: turn it back into energy, if you can.

Larry   April 24th, 2008 3:58 pm ET

This is NOT left wing liberal crap. This appeals to people of all persuasions, and it's something that a) isn't that hard to do, and b) isn't that expensive to take care of. I think recycling is the same kind of's more about changing habits than anything else.

Besides the aesthetic element (which is considerable) and the biological issue (which is empirically supportable), at the very least it's the right thing to focus on to reduce energy use and dependence on foreign energy sources. I didn't use to think anything of christmas lights being on all night long, but now it seems pretty pointless and stupid. Again, it's just not that hard to make a positive change.

Keep up the good work, Dark Sky Association!!

Ross   April 24th, 2008 6:19 pm ET

Shawn, while I generally agree with you about poor grammar and it hindering the legibility of many articles, you're exaggerating way too much. Sure, a sentence shouldn't be started with the word "but", however, this isn't an essay or a term paper; it's a blog. Sometimes it's easier to follow when you break up one really long sentence and make it two thoughts. Also, the use of "it's" with an apostrophe is correct. Since the only use is in "...chances are it's been a while...", he's saying "it has" hence the contraction with the apostrophe is correct.

Having said that, while light pollution is pretty bad in most cities, it's a little more complex than what is being portrayed here. Simply blocking the light going towards the sky would do nothing to reduce the energy used. Light pollution is made worse by the other pollutants that are in the air, because the light headed towards the sky reflects off all the smog. When one is lighting up words on a sign and wants them to be visible from two blocks away, there's nothing that directing that light will do to reduce the energy needed. Putting a reflector above "Eat At Joe's" to redirect light from the sky out to the street isn't going to make the letters more legible. While the light may be more concentrated and visible from a larger distance, all people will see is a blob of light.

Chuck Hunt   April 24th, 2008 6:29 pm ET

Light pollution affects everyone.
Most of the wasted lighting is produced by coal burning electrical plants.
These produce high air pollution.
The tax dollars wasted by cities that pay for the excessive lighting could be used to feed and house the poor.
There is just too much unneeded lighting.
The electric company would have the whole planet lighted at night.
Taxpayer dollars just roll into their pockets for public lighting.
Save taxpayer dollars AND reduce pollution by reducing excessive lights.

Phil Creed   April 25th, 2008 12:19 am ET

Light pollution isn't a political issue. It's more of a conservation issue just like historical or wildlife preservation. And saving taxpayer's dollars by not installing glare-bomb lighting doesn't make it a "liberal" or "conservative" idea; it's just plain common sense to have streetlights shine down toward the streets, and not through second-story windows where people are trying to sleep or uselessly into space.

Part of the reason people don't miss the stars in the cities is because they've never SEEN them. If you've been out in the desert, or along the lonelier peaks of the Appalachians like Spruce Knob, the heavens are just awe-inspiring and beyond description, yet it's being stamped out by upwards- and sideways-shining lights that are doing no one any good.

Every year the nighttime skyglow gets worse. I live in Ohio, and one of my favorite stargazing spots is in Coshocton County. You can see the skyglow from Columbus off to the southwest. That is, SIXTY MILES to the southwest! From the summit of Spruce Knob, WV, you can now even see a faint glow from the D.C. area, even though our nation's capitol is 140 miles away. Even Las Vegas has a light dome that's visible 180 miles away from the Grand Canyon. It's not just a case of getting away from the city to see stars; there's going to come a point where there's no place to run and the heavens are lost to a senseless, perpetual orange gloaming.

Geovani Balbino   April 25th, 2008 2:36 am ET

Actually, Petit designed not the camera, but a mechanism to compensate the fast target (city) movement relatively to the ISS.
Thank you for this nice blog!

Ernie Kampmann   April 25th, 2008 9:51 am ET

Wow. I stirred up some people, didn't I? Here's my whole point. Democrats always want to tax people to death and give the money away to others. They want to spend money on ideas that seem to make sense. This one seems to make basic sense, turn off lights, save electric and thus save energy and pollute less. My problem is that these people spent probably millions of dollars thus far just to come to this conclusion. Democrats always say we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. While I ALSO believe we must do this and that we should spend some money in order to do it, I believe that the money is being mis-managed on a basic level. We all know (even Republicans) that oil is NOT limitless and that we will eventually have to come up with better sources of energy if we are to survive. Why not drill for oil off the coast or in Alaska? The libs and special interest environmental groups giving them money are keeping us from tapping into the large oil reserves in the Gulf, but Hugo Chavez and castro are currently working on a plan to tap into them. How is allowing Cuba and Venezuela (Spelling? Sorry) to drill for oil off of our coast reducing our dependence on foreign oil? If done properly and safely, it will not harm the environment. At least it will not harm it anymore than we already are! Its not a long term fix, but it will buy us a little time. Why not use nuclear energy? The left wing liberals always say that we should save the environment and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. I simply believe that we can't have both at the same time. Its not a perfect world we live in. We can't have our cake and eat it too! A simple analogy to this whole mess is building a four lane suspension bridge across a creek that is 6 feet wide to a child's clubhouse, when all that is needed is a board and a couple pieces of rope to hang onto! Wake up. We are running this planet into the ground and wasting billions of dollars doing it.

Ernie Kampmann   April 25th, 2008 9:53 am ET

By the way, JK above is absolutely correct!

Ernie Kampmann   April 25th, 2008 9:59 am ET

One more thing to BOB above, "GET OFF MY LAWN!"

Ron   April 25th, 2008 11:55 am ET

I don't care for light pollution any more then I care for any kind of pollution however any money saved from better lighting practices certainly would not go to feeding or housing the poor. Any savings would be instantly spent on some other stupid and wasteful project, plan or politicians pocket. Perhaps it would be spent for health care of illegal aliens, or teaching everyone Spanish or the extra costs of printing things in multiple languages but never on something beneficial or useful.

Aussie Jane   April 25th, 2008 3:35 pm ET

"The lowest point in San Jose, CA is at sea level at the San Francisco Bay in Alviso; the highest is 4,372 feet (1,333 m) at Copernicus Peak, Mount Hamilton, which is technically outside the city limit. Due to the proximity to Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton, San Jose has taken several steps to reduce light pollution, including replacing all street lamps and outdoor lighting in private developments with low pressure sodium lamps. To recognize the city's efforts, the asteroid 6216 San Jose was named after the city." -Wikipedia article (San Jose)
I think San Jose is a fine example of how a city can change it's lighting infrastructure, to reduce light pollution. Compared to most large cities in the U.S. I have been to, San Jose is at the top of the list when it comes to reducing light pollution. When I lived there in the 1970s, we had gold skies at night. Now, you can see the stars again.

Robert Lee   April 25th, 2008 5:00 pm ET

We can only faintly see the northern lights hear in Anchorage because of all the outdoor lighting that the city of Anchorage sponsors in winter. A 6000k world at night is not only wasteful of energy, it isn't healthy or wise. Much of that light comes with a carbon price. I would like to see the sky again, so thanks guys.

Tim Maher   April 25th, 2008 9:12 pm ET

I wish more people would push there local areas to consider light pollution. I'm a city boy at heart – and at everything else other than one exception: the stars. I used to live in the rural rural part of Africa and there is nothing I miss more than the stream of the Milky Way in the night sky.

Dan   April 27th, 2008 8:55 am ET


Michael Gilmer   April 27th, 2008 11:34 am ET

Fighting light pollution is a win-win situation. Conserving energy, helping the environment, and having a beautiful pristine night sky is something everyone can do – and it doesn't cost a dime to do it. As an amateur astronomer, I have a personal stake in enjoying dark skies, but those without telescopes can benefit as well.

Linda   April 27th, 2008 4:30 pm ET

Chicago has actually made a lot of improvements on light pollution. They now have a program called Lights Out Chicago that was started when scientists at the Field museum discovered that when the lights were on at McCormick place there were 80% more birds killed than when the lights were out during the migratory seasons.

All of the skyscrapers and most of the loop now have a lights out or lights dimmed during at least 4 months of the year and more and more buildings sign on each year when they see the energy savings. It is estimated that as many as ten thousand (10,000) birds are saved each year. I would love to see the night shots from space that actually show a month when the Lights Out Chicago program is in place vs the months where it isn't, maybe then we could get more buildings to sign on to the program year round.

Joe Lalumia   April 30th, 2008 5:42 pm ET

Let me appeal to your saving energy senses-

1. Billions of dollars per year in energy costs go out into SPACE, rather than toward the ground where they belong.

2. This is really a simple fix- fully shielded fixtures are the same price as unshielded fixtures- and use less energy since the light is DIRECTED –estimates are 30-40% less energy for the same illumination.

3. The problem is that the public equates more light to more safety at night- even though the light may be pointed right at you creating deep shadows on the property where criminals can hide.

4. Many laws have been passed designating fully shielded reflective fixtures for all commercial and residential applications- however communities have been slow to enact these laws and more importantly ENFORCE the light trespass laws- and utility companies and transportation departments continue to install OLD type unshielded fixtures.

Until this big waste of energy reaches a "public" critical mass - things will stay as they are now. Hopefully the news media will pick up on this energy WASTE and start covering it in prime time.

Franko   May 1st, 2008 3:09 am ET

Just think of the poor Eskimo; they cannot switch off the Northern Lights.

Due to constant light: "Today, factory farm chicken grow to slaughter weight of around two kilos in just 38 days". How few years could we make a human generation ?

Children become short sight if continuously exposed to light.

With Earth based telescopes blinded, will we miss the asteroid lurking to create a Deep Impact ?

Andrew L.   May 3rd, 2008 11:31 pm ET

Our village has gone out of its way to replace older streetlights with newer, more efficient lights - but also replace the old lenses that scattered the light. the new lights shine down ONLY. The result is a HUGE decrease on the amount of light pollution! We are a suburb with a tough battle between the safety of the lights and the natural beauty of the dark.

OMG-Fact #26577 | ssttevee's Blog   February 20th, 2011 8:35 am ET

[...] Photographs of Earth taken from the International Space Station reveal that the world’s major cities are, not surprisingly, the brightest spots on Earth. The biggest offender by far, though, is Las Vegas. However, what truly is surprising is that these lights that can be seen from space are only the light that is traveling from the Earth up to the sky. This is light that is actually pointed upward that no one on Earth can actually see, and is therefore wasted energy. The International Dark-Sky Association refers to this phenomenon as “light pollution”. Not only does too much light emanating from our major cities make it difficult or impossible to view the night sky from Earth, but the wasted light that inefficiently travels up into space also contributes to real pollution. They estimate that, in the U.S. alone, several billion dollars in energy costs are wasted and an additional 38 million tons of CO2 get generated every year to produce lights that we can’t even see. (source) [...]

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Las Vegas Strip is the brightest place on Earth when looked from space   September 1st, 2011 11:43 pm ET

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[...] out. Even just outside of Las Vegas (which, I learned while writing this, may hold the title of brightest city on the earth), one only needs to drive about a half hour past the mountains on the edge of town to escape to [...]

5 Things We Learned about Vegas in 5 Days – Alexis Chateau PR   May 27th, 2017 10:55 pm ET

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