If you look at a satellite photo taken at night of the United States, you’ll see a recognizable shape. The coastlines are outlined in light. Major cities are clearly defined. Yet, out in far West Texas, there is a dark area void of major manmade lighting.
This huge dark area is being preserved thanks to a major dark sky preservation movement by local entities.
International Dark-sky Association awarded a gold tier, the highest honor, to Big Bend National Park in 2012. The 800,000-acre park has changed lighting throughout the park to preserve views of the Milky Way and constellations. Manmade objects—such as satellites, the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station—are clear as they streak across the heavens.
Two hours north of Big Bend National Park is the McDonald Observatory complex. The observatory is part of the University of Texas at Austin and a leader in astronomical research, teaching, public education and community outreach. The radio program “StarDate,” which is aired on more than 300 radio stations, comes from the observatory. It tells listeners what to look for in the night sky and explains the science, history and skylore behind these objects.
Scientists at McDonald Observatory need dark skies to do their work. Light pollution awareness has spread from the observatory to towns in the area such as El Paso, Alpine and Marfa. Each has enacted ordinances concerning light pollution and outdoor lighting.
Light pollution is a sign of wasted energy as lighting blasts into areas where it’s not needed. Misplaced lighting causes shadows at night that can hide walking and driving hazards. Unnecessary lighting disrupts natural plant and animal cycles. Northern mockingbirds, for example, which are usually seen during the day now feed on insects under parking-lot lights at night. Excess lighting disrupts the sleep cycle in humans. Glare from improperly placed lights can cause temporary night blindness and is a safety hazard.
Simple things can be done to eliminate light pollution. City ordinances encourage people to turn lights off when not needed in a home or business, use motion-activated sensors to turn lights on, and install shields around lights to deflect light downwards.
West Texas is a hotbed of drilling thanks to the recent boom in domestic energy. Employees from McDonald Observatory worked with Pioneer Energy in 2013 to greatly reduce light pollution on a drilling rig.
We each have a role in preserving the night sky. To me, the most important reason is because humans are linked to the skies. Our ancient ancestors around the world looked up to the sky with wonder. They told stories, created myths, named the constellations and dreamed big dreams. Today we have two generations of humans who have grown up without a brilliant night sky.
A middle-aged woman recently told me that she wanted to go on one of my workshops to Big Bend National Park, because she’d never seen the Milky Way. It’s a sad state of our society when someone has lived a half-century and never beheld the glories of the stars overhead.
Electric lights started illuminating our cities in the 1870s. It’s time to turn off the night lights, start using the wonder of lighting in a smart way, and return to the beauty of the glorious night sky.
Kathy Adams Clark is a professional nature photographer who runs the stock photo agency KAC Productions. Her photography has been published in many magazines, books and calendars, including two books on Big Bend—Photographing Big Bend National Park and Enjoying Big Bend National Park—where she also leads photo tours. Her international photo tours are offered through Strabo Photo tours.