Not a Starry, Starry Night

Despite the existence of the many distractions of modern life, one of the things that I still enjoy doing is looking up at the night sky. On a clear night, I could easily spot Orion’s Belt, the only constellation I can recognize, I’m afraid. My minuscule knowledge of the stars and other celestial bodies, however, does not deter me from appreciating their light and beauty. Looking at them is a humbling experience, not to mention relaxing. With the world spinning at such a hurried pace, the stars remind me to pause and reflect on things, which may be infinitesimal in the viewpoint of the cosmos.

I’m fortunate that despite living in an urban area, I still get to see stars, and on rare occasions even shooting stars, piercing this black canopy hanging above me. Metro Manila may be suffering from air pollution, but at least I can still see some portions of the sky glittering.  I have met many South Koreans who cannot say the same thing about their own night sky. They have mentioned to me before that they envy the Manila sky because they could see the moon and the stars clearly here. Back in Seoul, for instance, they said whenever they would look up at the night sky, all they could see was darkness. They added that seeing stars for them was a rarity; they would already feel lucky to see some scattered here and there. So, although the number of stars in Metro Manila isn’t incredibly vast to begin with, for them, it is already something to be envious about. Air pollution, they said, is what makes enjoying the stars impossible.


📸: Ivan Gatla.  People living in the rural areas are more fortunate because they get a clearer light show than those living in urban centers.  One of my biggest goals then is to be able to see parts of the Milky Way painted in the night sky just like this one on Calaguas.

I’d always assumed that air pollution in Metro Manila was worse compared to Seoul’s. Mass transportation system in Seoul is definitely better than the one we have here. It has more trains and subways, so they do not emit as much exhaust as the countless vehicles that ply the chaotic streets of Manila. Hearing them tell me that the air condition there is worse then surprised me greatly. But I couldn’t believe that it’s the only thing that prevents them from seeing the sky. There must be other factors. So I told them that aside from air pollution, Seoul must also be suffering from another pollutant: artificial light.

Being a city that is more modern than Metro Manila, Seoul probably has more establishments, soaring buildings, outdoor signages and advertisments, and more lamps dotting its streets. In short, Seoul, I assume, is perhaps brightened by artificial light more than it should be. My Korean acquaintances couldn’t get how light can actually “make the sky dirty,” so I had to explain my theory to them a bit further.

Months after, I saw this image done by David Garcia, a Filipino geographer and geospatial analyst. Here you can see how the areas of the Southeast Asian region come bursting with light at night. Also partially seen on the map are parts of Korea, Japan, and China, and from here I think I can say that maybe my light pollution theory may have some basis after all.

sea_night_dgarciaSo is it really that bad if your location — whether it may be a city or a rural area —  is oh-so-bright and shiny at night?  The answer is yes.  Too much or inappropriate outdoor lighting affects not only our ability to see and marvel at the night sky but also wildlife.  Take the situation of baby turtles as an example.  In order to get into the water, hatchlings follow the light of the moon reflected on the water.  However, artificial lights coming from resorts and houses at the beach confuse these marine animals.  So, instead of heading out into the water, they go towards the direction of these houses and establishments, where they can either be eaten by predators along the way or get stuck there instead and eventually die.    Aside from wildlife, light pollution also has negative impacts on human health, energy, safety, and even heritage.

With more and more places getting flooded with artificial light, I cannot help but wonder how the sky will look like in the future if light pollution is not properly addressed. Imagine, a glimpse of the Milky Way just above our heads but is ironically kept in the shadows because of  massive LED screens showing ads, lampposts, and other sources of artificial light.  Frustrating, isn’t it?  I don’t think I’d ever want to live in a place where the only lights I get to see in the sky are those attached to an aircraft.




You can download Garcia’s map in full resolution here.

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