In 1994, a earthquake of magnitude 6.7 shook Los Angeles at 4:30 am. This caused a blackout in the region and woke up the townspeople. Frightened, many called the emergency service concerned about a mysterious smoke silver slicing through the sky. They were seeing the Milky Way for the first time in their lives.

Earthquakes aren't usually very pleasant experiences, and the 1994 one in California was no exception. It was even one of the biggest earthquakes of recent history to hit the region, causing 57 deaths, collapse of residential and commercial buildings, and damage to local infrastructure, totaling a loss of $20 billion.

Golden State Freeway Viaduct partially collapsed during earthquake
Golden State Freeway viaduct partially collapsed during earthquake. Photo: Robert A. Eplett

O earthquake it also disrupted the area's power supply, and with very few cars on the street at that time, Los Angeles was completely dark. After the earthquakes, people are told to leave their homes for safety, and when they left in the middle of the night, with the entire city in darkness, residents of Los Angeles were faced with a starry sky in a way they had never seen before.

But how could that earthquake or blackout have changed the Los Angeles sky so much? In fact, they haven't changed. The blackout just turned off the shield that isolated the angelinos from the rest of the Universe. And this shield, we call "light pollution".

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Contrary to appearances, the air is not completely transparent. During the day it reflects part of the sunlight making the sky blue. At night, it should be more crystal clear, but it ends up reflecting the lights of our cities and outshining the faintest stars. And this isn't just a Los Angeles problem.

New York sky lit by the city's light pollution
New York sky lit by the city's light pollution. Source: Wikimedia

It is estimated that two thirds of Brazilians live under intense light pollution and will never have the privilege of contemplating the Milky Way. This is a global problem and is inherent in economic development. And light pollution not only deprives us of stargazing, it also changes the life cycle of plants, insects, birds and many other animals.

We can do little to contain the growth of urban centers, but we can optimize the way we light up our cities. And when we move away from the lights of big cities, or during blackouts like the one in Los Angeles, we have the opportunity to contemplate a truly starry sky, as our ancestors saw it every night.

When we turn off all the artificial lights around us, our pupils dilate making our vision even more sensitive. This allows us to easily see countless stars in the sky and the milky glow of the Milky Way, as well as some distant nebulae and galaxies.

Rural sky in the Municipality of Matureia, Sertão da Paraíba
Rural sky in the Municipality of Matureia, Sertão da Paraíba. Photo: Marcelo Zurita

Now, I would like to leave a tip: when planning your next vacation, consider the possibility of, instead of going to a trendy beach, look for a hotel or inn in a rural area, far from the big cities. At night, turn off all the lights and contemplate all the beauty of a truly starry sky.

In doing so, you may feel how many angelinos felt during the 1994 blackout. As if Los Angeles residents slept, and woken up citizens of an infinite, beautiful Universe.

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