Photographers Travel Earth to Save Sky from Light Pollution

Skyglow - Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinovic
by Ken Kaplan
Executive Editor
, iQ by Intel

Timelapse photographers zigzagged 150,000 miles across the U.S. to capture the wonders of the dark skies and raise awareness about the growing threat of light pollution.

Their family and friends think they’re crazy for devoting so many nights to create Skyglow, a book and video born from Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinovic’s passion for nature and photography. Just how Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking brought deeper understanding of the cosmos, Heffernan and Mehmedinovic are raising awareness about the damage caused by ever increasing light pollution. Their magical timelapse photography just might do the trick.

Light pollution, also known as skyglow, may not appear to be the most urgent problem facing the planet, but according to Heffernan, Mehmedinovic and others in the dark sky movement, it may be the most indicative of humanity’s growing separation from nature.

Driven by data warning that 80 percent of the world dwells below light-polluted skies — some scientists say it’s causing profound biological damage to many living things on Earth — the two photographers devoted three years of their lives to the Skyglow project. A successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015 helped them raise enough funds to travel 150,000 miles across the U.S., exploring remote and exotic locations under dark skies.

They traveled from the deserts of Arizona to the heights of Hawaii and dozens of places between and beyond. They captured 3 million images of starry night skies, driven by the fear that the twinkling constellations and swirling arms of the Milky Way could soon disappear from view, obfuscated by intensifying electrical light emanating from Earth.

“We lived on very little sleep, lots of energy drinks and some frustrations along the way, but the magic of these locations always made each trip worthwhile,” said Heffernan, describing his nocturnal travels with Mehmedinovic.

Skyglow is filled with memorizing images of the night sky and majestic starscapes. The accompanying video displays explosive, spinning and cascading light shows. Heffernan said their work is intended to inspire “ecological accountability” in the same way Earth Day brings attention to issues of sustainability.

“Whether you believe in global warming or not, hopefully we can at least all agree we need to be accountable for our actions and impact as a species or we’ll inevitably become extinct,” Heffernan said. “With light pollution, Harun and I understand that there are far more pressing crises facing the world every day, but we believe light pollution is indicative and emblematic of the greater issue of accountability. If we can scale back to what we need versus what we crave, it’s a step in the right direction.”

The two photographers first learned about light pollution while capturing long-exposure night sky timelapse images in 2012. Because the camera exposure lasts for 25-30 seconds to capture the stars and galaxies overhead, the glare of cities even hundreds of miles away soon became impossible to ignore.

“We kept having to trek further and further to find dark skies,” said Heffernan. “Out of that basic obstacle, we started thinking about light pollution, quickly learning it was causing great ecological damage. Beyond the scientific questions, we also became fascinated with the psychological impacts of living under a starless sky.”

Disappearing Dark Skies

Heffernan has lived in cities most of his life, including London, Toronto and Los Angeles.

“Only when I got back out under amazing night skies did I realize something intangible had been missing from my psyche,” he said. “The more we spoke with other people on our travels, the more we realized how universal this feeling of loss was.”

The two photographers were blown away by the breadth of the impact of light pollution on the circadian clock of living organisms. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the consequences range from the disruption of seasonal cycles of plants and the breeding cycles of animals to potentially causing depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease and cancer in people.

“What was most striking to me was how bad things have gotten so fast,” said Heffernan. “When you look at the North American maps over the last 50 years and the projections, it’s devastating. The International Dark Sky Association estimates that 80 percent of North America can’t see the Milky Way — and the numbers are much worse in Europe and other developed nations.”

Skyglow - Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinovic

In addition to Earth Day on April 22, the International Dark Sky Association celebrates Dark Sky Week on April 22-28.

Heffernan said one of the most incredible dark sky locations to visit is the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii.

“Our Skyglow journey took us all across the continent to some of the most incredible dark sky locations, but the sky quality here [in Hawaii] at 14,000 feet was probably some of best we’ve ever seen,” he said.

Heffernan and Mehmedinovic rely on a half dozen Canon 5D Mark III and 6D cameras, a collection of lenses with aperture f2.8 or faster and few remote control intervalometers, which count intervals of time for each camera. They bring sturdy tripods and occasionally use Alpine Labs’ Michron and Radian, which allow for 360-degree turn of the camera while shooting. They use timelapse devices and a motorized dolly for more advanced moving shots. The Sky Guide iPhone app allows them to preview celestial timing and Milky Way positioning. The Radarnow! Weather Radar app provides precise Doppler readings.

“Advancement of DSLR sensors enabled us to take the sort of photos that would’ve required a million dollar camera 20 years ago,” said Mehmedinovic. “Also the advancement of computer processing and data storage technologies allow us to work with RAW footage at pretty amazing speeds.”

With the help of digital technologies and love for Mother Earth, Heffernan and Mehmedinovic promise to keep fighting to stop the destruction of the planet’s dark skies by raising awareness about light pollution.

“I am seeing more awareness now than ever, but we are still long way from reversing the train to oblivion,” said Mehmedinovic. “Light pollution affects 80 percent of humanity but still only one percent are reported to know what it is.”

For all of the family members and friends who worried every time the two photographers went chasing night skies, Mehmedinovic said they were relieved to see the project finish.

“They fully embraced the importance of the project, and perhaps trust that I won’t disappear in the dark.”

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