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Northern Lights: Iceland turns off the lights to admire nature's own

The blackout was a deliberate move by city officials, who hoped to cut light pollution and give residents a better view of the Aurora Borealis.

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    The Northern Lights are seen above the ash plume of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano in the evening April 22, 2010.
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The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are among the most breathtaking spectacles of the natural world. When it came time to catch a glimpse, Icelanders weren’t about to let a little light pollution get in their way.

So on Wednesday night, the streets of Reykjavik went dark. The blackout was a deliberate move by city officials, who hoped to cut light pollution and give residents a better view of the aurora. It was also a rare moment of recognition for the issue of light pollution, which affects more than 80 percent of the world’s population.

“Switching off the street lights was a great gesture by the city council,” astronomy educator Saever Helgi Bragason told the BBC. “I hope this will be done more often as it was very successful, especially for those who were patient enough to wait for the lights to appear.”

Reykjavik city council also encouraged residents to turn off the lights in their homes for maximum viewing potential. The blackout was only supposed to last an hour, but when the aurora didn’t arrive on time, officials extended it to midnight.

The Aurora Borealis occurs when charged particles, ejected from the Sun by solar wind, come into contact with Earth’s magnetic field and interact with our own atmosphere. From the ground, this phenomenon manifests as shimmering colored lights. Auroras often appear in vibrant pinks, greens, and violets.

But light pollution can make them difficult to see. This is true of most celestial events – in fact, the glow of the Milky Way galaxy would be visible at night, if not for the overpowering glow of street lamps and flashing billboards. Today, however, it's hidden for roughly one-third of all Earth's residents.

And stargazers aren’t the only ones who would take issue with that. Light pollution can also have a profound effect on animal behavior, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in June:

Light pollution has been linked to all kinds of disturbances in the natural world. It sends migratory birds off track – and on track to smack into buildings. Confused by the brightness, animals that hunt or forage at night are more cautious. And baby sea turtles that rely on moonlight to guide them to the ocean after they hatch may instead hustle toward the glowing strip mall on the other side of the beach.

In June, researchers published an atlas mapping artificial sky brightness, helping astronomers and amateur stargazers to find the best views of the night sky. But the atlas could point to broader solutions, as well: helping legislators assess light pollution in their region, for example. And the more awareness there is, the more likely that people will adopt more light-friendly innovations, such as using Light-Emitting Diode lightbulbs (LEDs), or minimizing lights that point straight up at the sky. 

"The great thing about this is there are ways we can do far better than we are doing right now and not sacrifice any of the needs we have in terms of lighting at night for human safety and well-being," Travis Longcore, an assistant professor of architecture and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California, told the Monitor in June.

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