On a mountain ridge below Canada, the midnight sky shines bright. A myriad of meteors streaks across the Milky Way over Upper Kintla Lake on the northern edge of Glacier National Park. The only interruption to the intense streams of photons traveling through space is a fleet of bats silently catching all the mosquitoes on their erratic paths overhead. It is a primal sight that stirs the soul.
However, a daunting realization washes over me: such a sight is completely alien and inaccessible to most humans, whose nights are now supplanted by the relentless glow of streetlights and streetlights.
My fellow Montanans and I can count our lucky stars to live in a state teeming with common space, totaling some 30 million acres of public land and 170,000 miles of rivers.
But our most expansive collective resource, by exponential degrees, is embedded in our state’s catchiest nickname: Big Sky Country.
Of course, the wonder of space above us is not relegated to the night.
On a July afternoon, sunlight filtering through a hail storm system produced mesmerizing 20,000-foot towers of pink, orange, and cobalt blue water vapor over Kalispell. The huge clouds drew my neighbors and me outside, cameras in hand to capture the spectacle.
The sight was less compelling for residents within the city limits, where an isolated pocket of falling golf ball-sized ice chunks shattered car windshields and pummeled squirrels.
As powerful as a Montana deluge can be, the sky holding back precipitation often produces far more dire results. Dry spells herald wildfire smoke, and the only redeeming quality is the mesmerizing ways the smoke bends and scatters light, shifting the atmospheric color wheel to make for extra-dramatic sunrises and sunsets.
In keeping with the typical course of a Montana summer, in August the luscious blue expanses above the valley gave way to an acrid shade of brown and amber once more as a fire blackened the hills around the small riverside communities. Elmo Lake and Dayton. A fleet of planes attempted to balance the elements by pulling hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from Flathead Lake into the flames. Still, hundreds had to be evacuated and several homes were lost.
Even when structures and properties are not at immediate risk of being taken over, quality of life sinks when smoke settles, with health and economic repercussions.
“In general, we have more days of smoke in the year as a trend. Over time, people are going to have to become more aware of air quality and what that means for their health,” said Brandon McGuire, an atmospheric scientist with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. “In Montana we pride ourselves on our long sights, and that trip to Glacier could be affected by that.”
Yet even if Montanans were able to manipulate the continental climate to avoid sight-damaging smoke, advances in telecommunications technology continue to compromise the integrity of the sky. Thousands of glowing man-made fragments of space debris surround Earth, trapping sunlight and producing the appearance of stars perpetually out of sync with the arc of natural constellations to the human observer on the ground.
Add what’s already drifting up there to plans to launch thousands more satellites into orbit and it almost guarantees that generations to come won’t experience an unadulterated night sky. The new satellites promise to bring broadband Internet to every human in every corner of the Earth. While that may be a boon to rural regions like ours that are waiting for faster fiber cables to fully participate in today’s virtual economy, it will come at a cost.
Mark Paulson, astrophysicist and president of the Big Sky Astronomy Club, moved to Kalispell in the 1970s to a house a block from Legends Stadium. Back then, he could set up his telescope in his backyard and be rewarded with a splendid view of the Milky Way. These days, he said, light pollution in the city has increased to the point that it’s “no longer worth it” to take the telescope out at home.
“Everyone has this misconception that when we talk about night skies it’s just about looking up and seeing the stars,” Paulson said. “It’s much more than that. The entire nocturnal animal and plant kingdom is based on dark skies. There is an economic value to dark skies. There’s a lot to it. It is difficult to digest and put into words the value of the night skies.”
Considering himself a pragmatist, Paulson argues that with enough public education and an updated set of dark-sky ordinances in the valley’s three major municipalities, the northwestern Montana night sky could be restored to its former splendor, at least in part.
He has helped organize “star parties” at Glacier Park’s Logan Pass during the summers, which attract several hundred novice stargazers from around the world who have never seen the Milky Way.
“They are absolutely stunned. It hits you right to the heart,” said Paulson. “You know what I always say: ‘Every now and then go outside and look up. It’s good for your mind and good for your soul.’”