The Milky Way looms overhead as a rock slides across the ground in Death Valley National Park.
The Milky Way looms overhead as a rock slides across the ground in Death Valley National Park. (Photo: Matipon/Shutterstock)

Even if you don't live in a major city, seeing a magnificent sky like the one above is a rare occurrence for most Americans. That's because light pollution obscures the Milky Way from a staggering 80 percent of North Americans, according to a new study.

To shine a light — so to speak — on the under-quantified issue of how light pollution affects our world, a team of scientists has developed the New World Atlas of Artificial Light, which shows just how unnaturally bright our night skies are.

"The Milky Way is hidden from more than one-third of humanity," the study states. "Moreover, 23 percent of the world’s land surfaces between 75°N and 60°S, 88 percent of Europe, and almost half of the United States experience light-polluted nights."

The map (a screencapture of which can be seen below) was created with light pollution propagation software that uses "new high-resolution satellite data and new precision sky brightness measurements" to accurately capture the extent of artificial luminance on a global scale.

The New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness
The New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness (Photo: Falchi et al., Sci. Adv., Jakob Grothe/NPS contractor, Matthew Price/CIRES)

If you've never thought about light pollution before, you might be quick to say, "well, a little extra light in the evening isn't that big of a deal!" However, as with all components of our natural world, making sweeping alterations to our planet reverberates across natural systems in many ways — from disrupting migration patterns and nocturnal behaviors to confusing young sea turtles as they make their post-hatch journey to the sea.

"The introduction of artificial light probably represents the most drastic change human beings have made to their environment," scientist Christopher Kyba explains. "We are only beginning to learn what a drastic effect this has had on nocturnal ecology."

While so many of our skies are saturated with artificial light, there are still strongholds of darkness scattered in patches across the globe. In the United States, these are typically areas that have been designated as state and national parks, refuges and forests.

There's even an interactive map showing camp sites around the U.S. that are located in dark sky areas. This map uses a dark skies map created by the International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit organization fighting to limit light pollution.

If you're hoping to escape from the omnipresent skyglow of your town or city, consider taking a trip to one of these protected pockets of dark sky paradise.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
(Photo: TimothyJ [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

Straddling the Florida-Georgia line is the Okefenokee Swamp, a 438,00-acre blackwater swamp that's home to a diverse array of wildlife — from alligators to all kinds of wading birds. Due to its remote location, stargazing is one of the refuge's biggest draws.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park
(Photo: screaming_monkey/Flickr)

The Grand Canyon has a lot to boast about. In addition to being one of the most popular national parks in the U.S., it also boasts dark skies and excellent air quality that are great for catching evening views of the Milky Way.

Ouachita National Forest

Ouachita National Forest
(Photo: Sari ONeal/Shutterstock)

Stretching 1.8 million acres from eastern Oklahoma to western Arkansas, the Ouachita National Forest offers a variety of recreational activities. However, if you really want to experience the beauty of these rolling mountains, take a drive on the 54-mile Talimena Scenic Byway.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park
(Photo: Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock)

Jaw-dropping views of glaciers aren't the only thing this national park has to offer. Located in Montana along the border with Canada, Glacier National Park's top-notch stargazing opportunities further solidify the state's nickname: "Big Sky Country."

George Washington and Jefferson national forests

Jefferson National Forest
(Photo: Lucidys/Shutterstock)

If you took a look at the map above, you'll quickly realize there aren't many places in the eastern half of the United States that haven't been touched by light pollution. Two exceptions, however, are the George Washington and Jefferson national forests in the Appalachians.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.