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This article is about luminance of the night sky caused by artificial light sources. For the natural phenomenon arising from emission processes in the atmosphere, see airglow. For sunlight scattered from dust in the solar system, see zodiacal light. For general discussion of environmental impacts arising from the use of artificial light, see light pollution.
Mexico City at night, showing skyglow bright enough to read a book outside

Skyglow (or sky glow) is the diffuse luminance of the night sky, apart from discrete light sources such as the moon and visible individual stars. It is a commonly noticed aspect of light pollution. Although usually referring to sky luminance arising from the use of artificial lighting, skyglow can also refer to all diffuse sources of night sky luminance, including artificial as well as natural sources of diffuse nighttime light like the zodiacal light, starlight, and airglow.[1][2]

In the context of light pollution skyglow arises from the use of artificial light sources, including electrical (or rarely gas) lighting used for illumination and advertisement, and from gas flares.[3] Light propagating into the atmosphere directly from upward-directed or incompletely shielded sources, or after reflection from the ground or other surfaces, is partially scattered back toward the ground, producing a diffuse glow that can be seen from large distances. Skyglow from artificial lights is most often noticed as a glowing dome of light over cities and towns, yet is pervasive throughout the developed world.

A map showing the extent of skyglow over Europe


In this 10-second exposure photo, facing south toward Sagittarius, three forms of light pollution obscure the stars and faintly visible Milky Way in the suburban night sky over Southern California: skyglow, glare, and light trespass.

Light used for all purposes in the outdoor environment contributes to skyglow, by sometimes avoidable aspects such as poor shielding of fixtures, and through at least partially unavoidable aspects such as unshielded signage and reflection from intentionally illuminated surfaces. Some of this light is then scattered in the atmosphere back toward the ground by molecules and aerosols (see § Mechanism), and (if present) clouds, causing skyglow.

Research indicates that when viewed from nearby about half of skyglow arises from direct upward emissions, and half from reflected, though the ratio varies depending on details of lighting fixtures and usage, and distance of the observation point from the light source.[4][5] In most communities direct upward emission averages about 10% - 15%.[4] Fully shielded lighting (with no light emitted directly upward) decreases skyglow by about half when viewed nearby, but by much greater factors when viewed from a distance.

Skyglow is significantly amplified by the presence of snow, and within and near urban areas when clouds are present.[6] In remote areas snow brightens the sky, but clouds make the sky darker.

In remote areas on moonless nights clouds appear dark against the sky. In or near developed areas skyglow is strongly enhanced by clouds.


There are two kinds of light scattering that lead to sky glow: scattering from molecules such as N2 and O2 (called Rayleigh scattering), and that from aerosols, described by Mie theory. Rayleigh scattering is much stronger for short-wavelength (blue) light, while scattering from aerosols is less affected by wavelength. Rayleigh scattering makes the sky appear blue in the daytime; the more aerosols there are, the less blue or whiter the sky appears. In many areas, most particularly in urban areas, aerosol scattering dominates, due to the heavy aerosol loading caused by modern industrial activity, power generation, farming and transportation.

Despite the strong wavelength dependence of Rayleigh scattering, its effect on sky glow for real light sources is small. Though the shorter wavelengths suffer increased scattering, this increased scattering also gives rise to increased extinction: the effects approximately balance when the observation point is near the light source.[7]

For human visual perception of sky glow, generally the assumed context under discussions of sky glow, sources rich in shorter wavelengths produce brighter sky glow, but for a different reason (see § Dependence on light source).


Amateur astronomers have used the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale to measure skyglow ever since it was published in Sky & Telescope magazine in February 2001.[8] The scale rates the darkness of the night sky inhibited by skyglow with nine classes and provides a detailed description of each position on the scale. Amateurs also increasingly use Sky Quality Meters (SQM) that measure in astronomical photometric units of magnitudes per square arcsecond. Professional astronomers and light pollution researchers use various measures of luminous or radiant intensity per unit area, such as (nano-)Lamberts, magnitudes per square arcsecond, or (micro-)candela per square meter.[9]

Dependence on distance from source[edit]

For relatively small distances between the light source and observer, the intensity of the skyglow contribution from a single source of light is inversely proportional to the distance between the source and the observer (falls off as 1/r). This can be understood as follows: The illumination of any portion of atmosphere visible by the observer falls as 1/r2, but the path length of illuminated air along any given line of sight which is illuminated comparably to the brightest illumination grows linearly with distance; together, this gives a 1/r dependence. This is valid when the distance between the source and observer is smaller than the scale height of the atmosphere. At distances much larger, where the path length of illuminated air is limited by the height of the atmosphere itself, this becomes an inverse-square (1/r2) dependence.[citation needed]

In this approximately 200-degree view north from Downtown Seattle, skyglow can be seen above Bellevue on the right, around 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) away; University District in the center, around 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) away; as well as Queen Anne in the left, around 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) away.

Dependence on light source[edit]

Sky glow and stars visible with high-pressure sodium lighting - Calibrated model of Flagstaff, AZ USA as viewed from 10 km.[10]
Sky glow and stars visible with 4100K CCT LED lighting - Calibrated model of Flagstaff, AZ USA as viewed from 10 km.[10]

Different light sources produce differing amounts of visual sky glow. The dominant effect arises from the Purkinje shift, and not as commonly claimed from Rayleigh scattering of short wavelengths (see § Mechanism).[7][11] When observing the night sky, even from moderately light polluted areas, the eye becomes nearly or completely dark adapted or scotopic. The scotopic eye is much more sensitive to blue and green light, and much less sensitive to yellow and red light, than the photopic eye. Predominantly because of this effect, white light sources such as metal halide, fluorescent, or white LED can produce as much as 3.3 times the visual sky glow brightness of the currently most-common high-pressure sodium lamp, and up to eight times the brightness of low-pressure sodium or amber Aluminium gallium indium phosphide LED.

Lamp spectra vs visual spectral response V (photopic) and V' (scotopic). LPS = low-pressure sodium; NBA LED = narrow-band amber (AlGaInP) LED; HPS = high-pressure sodium; PCA LED = phosphor-converted amber LED; MH = metal halide; LED WW = warm white LED; LED CW = cool white LED; FLED = filtered white LED
Sky Glow brightness ratios for different lamp types[note 1]
Lamp Type Description Sky Glow relative to LPS Sky Glow relative to HPS
LPS Low-pressure sodium 1.0 0.4
NBA-LED amber AlGaInP LED 1.0 0.4
HPS High-pressure sodium 2.4 1.0
PCA-LED Phosphor-converted amber LED 2.4 1.0
FLED[note 2] 5000K CCT LED with yellow filter 3.6 1.5
LED 2400K CCT Warm white LED 4.3 1.8
LED 4100K CCT Neutral white LED 6.4 2.7
LED 5100K CCT Cool white LED 7.9 3.3

In detail, the effects are complex, depending both on the distance from the source as well as the viewing direction in the night sky. But the basic results of recent research are unambiguous: assuming equal luminous flux (that is, equal amounts of visible light), and matched optical characteristics of the fixtures (particularly the amount of light allowed to radiate directly upward), white sources rich in shorter (blue and green) wavelengths produce dramatically greater sky glow than sources with little blue and green.[10] The effect of Rayleigh scattering on skyglow is very small.

Much discussion in the lighting industry and even by some dark-sky advocacy organizations (e.g. International Dark-Sky Association) of the sky glow consequences of replacing the currently prevalent high-pressure sodium roadway lighting systems with white LEDs neglects critical issues of human visual spectral sensitivity,[13] or focuses exclusively on white LED light sources, or focuses concerns narrowly on the blue portion (<500 nm) of the spectrum.[14][15] All of these deficiencies lead to the incorrect conclusion that increases in sky glow brightness arising from the change in light source spectrum are minimal, or that light-pollution regulations that limit the CCT of white LEDs to so-called "warm white" (i.e. CCT <4000K or 3500K) will prevent sky glow increases.[10] Improved efficiency (efficiency in distributing light onto the target area - such as the roadway - with diminished "waste" falling outside of the target area[16] and more uniform distribution patterns[citation needed]) can allow designers to lower lighting amounts.[citation needed] But efficiency improvement sufficient to overcome sky glow doubling or tripling arising from a switch to even warm-white LED from high-pressure sodium (or a 4-8x increase compared to low-pressure sodium) has not been demonstrated.

Negative effects[edit]

Skyglow is mostly unpolarized, and its addition to moonlight results in a decreased polarization signal. Humans cannot perceive this pattern, but some arthropods can.

Skyglow, and more generally light pollution, has various negative effects: from aesthetic diminishment of the beauty of a star-filled sky, through energy and resources wasted in the production of excessive or uncontrolled lighting, to impacts on birds[17] and other biological systems,[18] including humans. Skyglow is a prime problem for astronomers, because it reduces contrast in the night sky to the extent where it may become impossible to see all but the brightest stars.[note 3]

Many nocturnal organisms are believed to navigate using the polarization signal of scattered moonlight.[20] Because skyglow is mostly unpolarized, it can swamp the weaker signal from the moon, making this type of navigation impossible.[21]

Due to skyglow, people who live in or near urban areas see thousands fewer stars than in an unpolluted sky, and commonly cannot see the Milky Way.[22] Fainter sights like the zodiacal light and Andromeda Galaxy are nearly impossible to discern even with telescopes.

Effects on the ecosystem[edit]

The effects of sky glow in relation to the ecosystem have observed to be detrimental to a variety of different organisms. The lives of plants and animals alike (especially those which are nocturnal) are affected as their natural environment becomes subjected to unnatural change. It can be assumed that the rate of human development technology exceeds the rate of non-human natural adaptability to their environment, therefore, organisms such as plants and animals are unable to keep up and can suffer as the consequences.[23] Although sky glow can be the result of a natural occurrence, the presence of artificial sky glow has become a detrimental problem as urbanization continues to flourish. The effects of urbanization, commercialization, and consumerism are the result of human development; these developments in turn have ecological consequences. For example, lighted fishing fleets, offshore oil platforms, and cruise ships all bring the disruption of artificial night lighting to the world's oceans. Similar problems of disrupting the environment and its biosphere are also very prevalent in regards to energy resources such as the installation of wind turbines and the interference they cause with not only bird flight paths, but also with human neurology.

As a whole, these effects derive from changes in orientation, disorientation, or misorientation, and attraction or repulsion from the altered light environment, which in turn may affect foraging, reproduction, migration, and communication. These changes can even result in the death of certain species such as certain migratory birds, sea creatures, and nocturnal predators.[24]

Besides the effect on animals, crops and trees are also very susceptible in being destroyed. The constant exposure to light has an impact of the photosynthesis of a plant, as a plant needs a balance of both sun and darkness in order for it to properly survive. In turn, the effects of sky glow can affect the production and rate of agriculture, especially in regards to farming areas that are close to large city centers.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Results from Luginbuhl et al.[7] and Aubé et al.[11]
  2. ^ As used on the Big Island of Hawai`i.[12]
  3. ^ It is a widely held misunderstanding that professional astronomical observatories can "filter out" certain wavelengths of light (such as that produced by low-pressure sodium). More accurately, by leaving large portions of the spectrum relatively unpolluted, the narrow-spectrum emission from low-pressure sodium lamps allows more opportunity for astronomers to "work around" the resulting light pollution.[19] Even when such lighting is widely used, skyglow still interferes with astronomical research as well as everyone's ability to see a natural star-filled sky.


  1. ^ F.E. Roach & Janet L. Gordon (1973). The Light of the Night Sky. D. Reidel (Dordrecht-Holland/Boston-USA). 
  2. ^ Flanders, Tony (December 5, 2008). "Rate Your Skyglow". Sky & Telescope. Sky Publishing of New Track Media. 
  3. ^ Emily Guerin (5 November 2015). "Oil Boom Means Sky Watchers Hoping for Starlight Just Get Stars, Lite". Retrieved 24 April 2016. 
  4. ^ a b Luginbuhl, C.; Walker, C.; Wainscoat, R. (2009). "Lighting and Astronomy". Physics Today. 62 (12): 32–37. doi:10.1063/1.3273014. Retrieved 17 April 2016. 
  5. ^ "Outdoor Lighting Codes". Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition. Retrieved 17 April 2016. 
  6. ^ C. C. M. Kyba; T. Ruhtz; J. Fischer & F Hölker (2011). Añel, Juan, ed. "Cloud Coverage Acts as an Amplifier for Ecological Light Pollution in Urban Ecosystems". PLoS ONE. 6 (3): e17307. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017307. PMC 3047560Freely accessible. PMID 21399694. 
  7. ^ a b c Luginbuhl, C. (2014). "The impact of light source spectral power distribution on sky glow". Journal of Quantitative Spectroscopy and Radiative Transfer. 139: 21–26. doi:10.1016/j.jqsrt.2013.12.004. 
  8. ^ Bortle, John E. (February 2001). "Observer's Log — Introducing the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale". Sky & Telescope. 
  9. ^ Garstang, R. (1989). "Night-Sky Brightness at Observatories and Sites". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 101: 306. Bibcode:1989PASP..101..306G. doi:10.1086/132436. 
  10. ^ a b c d Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition. "Lamp Spectrum and Light Pollution". Lamp Spectrum and Light Pollution. Retrieved 10 April 2016. 
  11. ^ a b Aubé, M.; Roby, J.; Kocifaj, M. (2013). "Evaluating Potential Spectral Impacts of Various Artificial Lights on Melatonin Suppression, Photosynthesis, and Star Visibility". PLOS ONE. 8: e67798. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0067798. PMC 3702543Freely accessible. PMID 23861808. 
  12. ^ Smith, D. "Shift to High-Tech Streetlights Saves Dark Skies, Money". Big Island Now. Retrieved 10 April 2016. 
  13. ^ Bierman, A. (2012). "Will switching to LED outdoor lighting increase sky glow?". Lighting Research and Technology. 44 (4): 449–458. doi:10.1177/1477153512437147. 
  14. ^ Ashdown, I. "Light pollution depends on the light source CCT". LEDs Magazine. PennWell Corporation. Retrieved 10 April 2016. 
  15. ^ International Dark-Sky Association. "Visibility, Environmental , and Astronomical Issues Associated with Blue - Rich White Outdoor Lighting" (PDF). International Dark-Sky Association. Retrieved 10 April 2016. 
  16. ^ "Fitted Target Efficacy metric promotes discussion". LEDs Magazine. Retrieved 18 April 2016. 
  17. ^ Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP)
  18. ^ C. Rich; T. Longcore, eds. (2006). Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting. Island Press (Washington; Covelo; London). 
  19. ^ C.B. Luginbuhl (2001). R. J. Cohen; W. T. Sullivan, III, eds. "Why Astronomy Needs Low-Pressure Sodium Lighting". Preserving the Astronomical Sky, IAU Symposium No. 196. PASP, San Francisco, USA: 81–86. 
  20. ^ Warrant, Eric; Dacke, Marie (1 January 2010). "Visual Orientation and Navigation in Nocturnal Arthropods". Brain, Behavior and Evolution. 75 (3): 156–173. doi:10.1159/000314277. 
  21. ^ Kyba, C. C. M.; Ruhtz, T.; Fischer, J.; Hölker, F. (17 December 2011). "Lunar skylight polarization signal polluted by urban lighting". Journal of Geophysical Research. 116 (D24). Bibcode:2011JGRD..11624106K. doi:10.1029/2011JD016698. 
  22. ^ Falchi, F.; et al. (10 June 2016). "The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness". Science Advances. 2 (6): e1600377. doi:10.1126/sciadv.1600377. PMC 4928945Freely accessible. PMID 27386582. Retrieved 16 July 2016. 
  23. ^ Saleh, Tiffany. "Effect of Artificial Lighting on Wildlife". Road RIPorter. Wildlands CPR. Retrieved March 7, 2012. 
  24. ^ Longcor &Rich, Travis and Catherine. "Ecological Light Pollution" (PDF). Frontiers in Ecology. The Ecological Society of America. Retrieved March 3, 2012. 

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