When an earthquake hit the San Fernando Valley in 1994, the power went out all over Los Angeles.

The quake struck just before dawn. And suddenly, phones started ringing at the local Griffith Observatory. People were worried because they thought the night sky looked strange.

Turns out, due to the power outage, these frightened Angelenos were simply seeing the stars for the first time!

"The stars were in fact so unfamiliar, they called us wondering what happened," observatory Director Ed Krupp told the Los Angeles Times.


Sadly, because of light pollution, residents of Los Angeles aren't alone in their shock over the real night sky anymore.

A U.S. Marines armored vehicle during a night operation in Afghanistan. Photo by Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images.

Light pollution is the brightening of the night sky by man-made sources.

It's everything from street lights to outdoor lights on homes. And since the incandescent bulb was introduced more than 100 years ago, it's been getting increasingly difficult to see the night sky.

Earth's city lights. Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC.

As I was working on this story, I thought about the last time I could clearly see the stars. I remembered seeing the Big Dipper from the backyard of my childhood home, but that was years ago. And I couldn't remember anything since.

Had it really been so long since I'd seen a clear view of the night sky? It's actually pretty likely.

It's estimated that nearly one-third of the human population, including 80% of Americans, can no longer see the Milky Way. That's our home galaxy, whose spiral band of white stars resembles spilled milk.

The Lyrid meteor shower and the Milky Way in the clear night sky of Thanlyin, Myanmar. Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images.

Why is this starry absence so important to consider?

I wanted to see what I was missing, so I went to my local observatory, the Haggart Observatory at Clackamas Community College. Once a month, volunteers open the observatory's large telescope and observation decks to the public.

When it was my turn, my group walked up the steep stairs to the first observation deck, then through a door in the floor to the top of the observatory.

It was pitch black. I couldn't see my own hands, let alone anyone else in my group. We took turns stepping up to the eyepiece on the large telescope. It was one "Wow," after another, as we each had a chance to see Saturn and her beautiful rings.

All at once, I understood why the sudden spray of stars likely alarmed the people of Southern California. It's beautiful. It's breathtaking. And there's simply nothing else like it.

The Milky Way towers over U.S. Marines near their compound in Afghanistan. Photo by Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images.

When we can't see the stars, we don't just miss out on awe-inspiring natural beauty.

We also miss out on a fascinating, almost spiritual part of the human experience.

"To me, I think we're robbing ourselves of our human soul that we've had for eons," said Dawn Nilson, volunteer Dark Sky Preservation director for Portland's Rose City Astronomers. "If you look at all the artwork going back thousands of years ... there's a relationship with the sky, with the stars, and our whole body's built on it. I mean, where would Van Gogh have painted a starry night if he didn't see a starry night?"

"The Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Just like other types of pollution, light pollution is something we should work to reduce.

"Being able to see the Milky Way, to see the stars, is incredibly important. But people don't see that as important as say, pollution in a river that's killing fish," said Cheryl Ann Bishop, communications and public affairs director for the International Dark-Sky Association.

Like trash in the water and smog in the air, light pollution is taking a serious toll on many species of wildlife.

Male tree frogs croak at night as part of their mating behavior, but the glare from artificial lights is disrupting this breeding ritual and interfering with reproduction, which may lead to a drop in population. Many amphibians hunt after dusk, but they may stay hidden if their area is well-lit, adversely affecting the amount of food they can eat.


A tree frog sits on a branch in Maryland. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Birds are also adversely affected.

Mary Coolidge, BirdSafe campaign coordinator for the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon, told me that most songbirds travel at night. It cuts down on turbulence, they can avoid predators, and they can use the moon and stars to navigate. But light pollution is starting to inhibit their migration patterns.

Cranes fly at dawn. Photo by Francois Nascimbeni/AFP/Getty Images.

"When they come to areas where there's quite a bit of sky glow because of unshielded lighting in the city, that really drowns out those cues for them," Coolidge said. And since many of the birds are attracted to light, streetlights and illuminated skyscrapers can be especially dangerous.

"There are stories of birds that ... end up getting entrapped by light and circling a building, and circling, and circling, until they collapse from exhaustion."

Birds fly past floodlights at the Punjab Cricket Association stadium in Chandigarh, India. Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images.

It's not just animals, either — our obsession with bright lights is also affecting human health.

Cities across the nation are replacing existing streetlights with LEDs, which are more energy-efficient and last longer. But LEDs have a high color temperature (around 4,000 to 5,000 Kelvin) and a high level of short-wavelength blue light. This can cause intense discomfort and severe glare and can actually be dangerous to walk or drive in at night.

The bright lights can also suppress melatonin, the hormone that controls our internal sleep-wake cycle. This can cause excessive sleepiness and impaired daytime function.

The moon behind a newly installed LED streetlight in Las Vegas. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

While the problem of light pollution is big and far-reaching, the fix is relatively simple.

To cut down our own contributions to light pollution and skyglow, we can each do a home audit of outdoor lighting.

"That's the first thing people can do is look around their homes to make sure their lights are dark-sky friendly," Bishop said. "One of the most important things is to make sure [lights] are fully shielded because a lot of lighting and a lot of security lighting ... it's not going down on the ground, where it's actually needed; it's going up in the sky, which serves no purpose and just wastes energy."

Image via International Dark-Sky Association.

The International Dark-Sky Association estimates that 30% of outdoor lighting in the U.S. is wasted, going up into the sky instead of down on the ground, resulting in $3.3 billion in unnecessary energy expenditures and 21 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

Why aren't people doing this already? "The hardest part is that most people don't know what they're missing, so it's not an issue to care about," Nilson said.

This long-exposure photograph shows the Milky Way in the clear night sky at Ngwe Saung beach in Myanmar. Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images.

Whether we're doing it for wildlife, our health, future generations, or everyday inspiration, the night sky is something worth fighting for.

Do yourself a favor this summer and find a place to stare at the night sky. I bet you'll be pleasantly surprised by the beauty you see.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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