The recent news reported by the New York Times, the BBC and the NPR web sites (for example) as well as in the Iceland Review and Iceland Magazine sites, about the shutting-off of Reykjavik's streetlights in order to better enjoy the Aurora (northern lights), got me thinking.

There are many life-long city dwellers who've never really seen a relatively dark sky or more than a handful of stars. Even people who could do so sometimes have never made the trip out of the city far enough for the experience.

So I was curious if this "lights-out" technique could ever be tried in a city or somewhere else besides in Iceland.

I'd like to estimate how big of a radius of "lights-out" would an observer need for the sky to be noticeably darker. But for that I'd have to know what is actually doing the scattering, and how far up does it extend.

My question: Why (actually) is the night sky so bright in the city? How far up is that happening?

I'm also curious if it is generally stronger in some climates vs others.

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    $\begingroup$ You might want to summarize your question a bit and prioritize what your main points are that need answering. $\endgroup$
    – arkaia
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ @aretxabaleta done! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ Its not so much the sky is bright, but it is the effect light pollution has on the eye. When lights are present (such as streetlights) the eye contracts to reduce light coming in, making it harder to see small features in the nighttime sky. Reducing light pollution allows the eye to see more details in the sky. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh No, it isn't. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Then you could see only a really, really, really small section of the sky :) Actually, astronomers can do remarkable things nowadays. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 13:12

1 Answer 1


What's actually happening is scattering of light, both off of aerosol particles and nitrogen and oxygen molecules.

For a review of quantitative models of light pollution as a function of distance from cities see Light Pollution Modeling . Some consider height as well as distance.

To get a rough estimate of what size of lights-out event would be needed to obtain a particular improvement in sky darkness, I would suggest looking at the light pollution map at Dark Site Finder or The night sky in the World.

Colours correspond to ratios between the artificial sky brightness and the natural sky brightness of: <0.01 (black), 0.01-0.11 (dark-gray), 0.11-0.33 (blue), 0.33-1 (green), 1-3 (yellow), 3-9 (orange), 9-27 (red), >27 (white)

Look at a coastal city such as Miami (which is extremely light-polluted) and see how the degree of light pollution drops off with distance from the city. Or look at a very isolated city such as Bismark, North Dakota. I would estimate 20 to 40 kilometers away from a source you see a factor of 10 reduction in artificial brightness.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer! Is it better to just call it Raleigh scattering (via density fluctuations) than scattering off of individual nitrogen and oxygen molecules? Also, using a sky brightness map this way sort-of assumes that the roll-off in population density with distance from a city is fast enough that at 20 to 40 km from city center there is little contribution from local light sources. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, Rayleigh scattering, like this colorado.edu/chemistry/volkamer/publications/group-pubs/… And yes I was trying to hand pick places where there were few light sources outside the main source, due to ocean or rural land, to compare to your situation where all the lights in a given region are turned off, and only those outside the region are contributing. But the model review article includes models with consideration of distributed populations. $\endgroup$
    – DavePhD
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ Ah I see what you mean - very nice. I'll try to dig into the paper to see if I can extract some info about the importance of humidity, and an approximate ceiling. The Light Pollution Modeling paper is very helpful. Aerosols may be closer to the ground, but Raleigh scattering is stronger at lower density (and therefore higher altitudes) where there are larger fluctuations, so it's actually a really interesting problem! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ I've just run across Skyglow: a retrieval of the approximate radiant intensity function of ground-based light sources by accident. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 2:58
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh: Polution scattering is Mie-scattering (aerosol particle scattering). Particle sizes > wavelength. $\endgroup$
    – user22279
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 8:57

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