The brilliant river of stars has dominated the night sky and human imaginations since time immemorial. Light pollution from cities and towns, factories and major roads has now made it impossible for most Britons to see the Milky Way.
But it is quickly becoming a faded memory as the haze of lights projecting into the night skies blot it out.
Only remote parts of Scotland, Sweden, Norway, parts of Spain and Austria have clear skies in western Europe.
And four fifths of Americans cannot see the natural wonder, a new global atlas of light pollution found.
The work by Italian and American scientists said light pollution was one of the most pervasive forms of environmental alteration with developed countries affected the most.
Not only does it affect our ability to gaze up to the heavens in wonder it can have devastating impacts on wildlife too.
Unnatural light can confuse or expose wildlife like insects, birds and sea turtles, with often fatal consequences.
But we can do something about it, by either shielding the night sky ensuring only the minimum light needed is used or just switch lights off.
Lead author Fabio Falchi from the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Italy said: “I hope that this atlas will finally open the eyes of people to light pollution.
“The new atlas provides a critical documentation of the state of the night environment as we stand on the cusp of a worldwide transition to LED technology.
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“Unless careful consideration is given to LED colour and lighting levels, this transition could unfortunately lead to a 2-3 fold increase in skyglow on clear nights.”
The atlas takes advantage of low-light imaging now available from the NOAA/NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, calibrated by thousands of ground observations.
Light pollution is most extensive in countries like Singapore, Italy and South Korea, while Canada and Australia retain the most dark sky.
Despite the vast open spaces of the American west, almost half of the US experiences light-polluted nights.
In addition to a world map, tables showed the area of each country and what fraction of its population live under highly light polluted skies.
Of the G20 countries, Italy and South Korea are the most polluted, and Canada and Australia the least.
Residents of India and Germany are most likely to be able to see the Milky Way from their home, while those in Saudi Arabia and South Korea are least likely.
Co-author Dan Duriscoe of the US National Park Service said: “In the US, some of our national parks are just about the last refuge of darkness – places like Yellowstone and the desert southwest.
“We’re lucky to have a lot of public land that provides a buffer from large cities.”
But Chris Elvidge, a scientist with NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Boulder, Colorado, added: “We’ve got whole generations of people in the United States who have never seen the Milky Way.
“It’s a big part of our connection to the cosmos – and it’s been lost.”
The study was published in the journal Science Advances.
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