Light pollution spoiling view

The last time I remember really seeing the stars was about 20 years ago on a trip on the Amazon River. Oh, I don’t mean that I haven’t noticed a few like the north star and a few more stars here and there and the big and little dippers for instance, but I haven’t seen the Milky Way the way I remember seeing it quite often when I was growing up. In that time so long ago there were so many stars visible, the Milky Way seemed to be a white-ish strip across the sky. Many of the stars seemed so far away and yet many stars also appeared to be so close as to be within easy reach – a sort of optical illusion.

The reason I haven’t been seeing the stars in the same way is because of pollution. Good old Merriam-Webster defines pollution as “environmental contamination with man-made waste.” The waste, in this case, is all of the light that we humans generate. Blame Thomas Alva Edison!

Almost 20 years ago, a measurement (Bortle class) came into use that compares light pollution for most spots on earth. The Bortle classes run from 1 through 9 with the least amount of light pollution being at 1 and the most light pollution being at 9.

So where should I go to get a really good sighting of the Milky Way in Minnesota?

Certainly not to the east. The center of Marshall is a Bortle class 6 and though it goes down to 3 heading east, the last that it is that low is about halfway between Fairfax and Gibbon. After that the number climbs to 8-9 in the Twin Cities.

About the best spot close by is just north of Canby where there is a very small area where it is just class 2, but for the best viewing you would have to go to the MN/Canadian border where there is a small area of Superior National Forest that is just class 1.

So how about Alaska? Good choice. There are big areas that are class 1, but stay away from Prudhoe Bay and the North Slope oil field area which is a big area of light pollution, bigger than the areas around both Fairbanks and Anchorage.


I am guilty of being a light polluter with all-night lights on each side of my garage doors every day/night of the year barring burned out lights or when the electricity fails. It is Christmas time that made me think about light pollution and once again I plead guilty.

I waited until after Thanksgiving before stringing lights both at the front and at the back of our home. Some lights do perk up the soul, but I also notice that the colored lights on an isolated tree in the countryside look ever so much better than in a mass of other light. I also have a preference for the lighted, single star atop an isolated silo.


For those of you who go back to the WWII era, you may remember a song with the words:

“When the lights go on again all over the world,

And the boys are home again all over the world…”

A recording by Vaughn Monroe with his orchestra made it to No. 1 on the Hit Parade in 1943. I can hear his deep voice in my mind right now.

The words are sort of the closing bookend to a phrase made by Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, on Aug. 3, 1914, the day before Britain declared war on Germany because, among other reasons, Germany had invaded Belgium. The words Grey spoke to form the opening bookend of that period of 30 plus years of world history: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Those words had a certain truth for Grey as he died in 1933 though in his service to Britain he holds the record for having the longest, continuous tenure as foreign secretary. Toward the end of WWI he was also ambassador to the U.S.

The lamps going out was a prophetic statement to the blackouts of WWII particularly for the period of the London Blitz of 1940-1941.

During the blackouts that were observed in the U.S. during WWII, one of the great sights I remember is being in our backyard when all the lights of the city of Dayton, Ohio, were blacked out, supposedly in order that the city could not be spotted from the air if there were German bombers overhead.

It was great to see the Milky Way, not just at the zenith (straight above us), but to see it stretched from horizon to horizon, especially when it was New Moon time – or at least that is the picture I have in my mind along with Vaughn Monroe’s tune.


Keith Gunderson (1935-2013) was a philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota who contributed some great stories as part of A Portrait of My State published in the book “Growing Up in Minnesota.” At Lyndale Grade School’s Patriotism Day, his teacher, Miss Berstrom, decided they would sing “When the Lights…” He and some others gave emphasis to some words: “When the lights go on a-gaaaain/alllllllll over the wuuuurld…” The pupils then were to hold their hands up and wiggle their fingers to indicate the lights blinking. Keith and his friend Ronnie of course added giggling to the wiggling which was frowned upon by Miss Berstrom leading to a temporary banishment from the classroom.

Keith went home after learning the song and “wiggled my fingers at my mom and asked her if she knew what it was and she said it looks like you’re wiggling your fingers and I said nope it’s the light going on a-gaaaain/alllllllll over the wuuuurld and flopped in the big chair laughing my brains out.”

Until next time: Oh, Fiddlesticks!