Seeing the Milky Way in San Antonio — The Easiest Environmental Problem to Fix

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Earth at Night, Nov. 27, 2000. Credit: C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC), NOAA/ NGDC, DMSP Digital Archive.

Earth at Night, Nov. 27, 2000. Credit: C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC), NOAA/ NGDC, DMSP Digital Archive. Click to enlarge.

Mom and I used to stand on our porch just two miles outside Grand Junction, Colo. and stare at the Milky Way. Billions of stars as far as the eye could see, billions more with her telescope. If we stared long enough the immensity of the universe melted away concerns about overdue bills, broken radiators and stains on the carpet. Even war almost seemed silly when compared to the vast, rich emptiness of space. (Almost.)

The summer Milky Way seems to stand on end over this lonely, deserted road in Texas. NASA photo.

The summer Milky Way seems to stand on end over this lonely, deserted road in Texas. NASA photo.

"We're so tiny," my mom said simply. A chill ran down my spine every time – the vastness of outer space's humbling perspective still does that.

I'm embarrassed to say that I pretty much forgot about stars when I moved to San Antonio and joined about two-thirds of people on Earth who cannot see a dark sky with stars. I hadn't noticed between work, friends, bills and more work that I had lost that chill until I spent Thursday evening in a renovated farm equipment warehouse on South Flores Street.

The Cleary Zimmermann warehouse is home of the engineering firm's office, future home to American Institute of Architects San Antonio and the SoFlo Market every second Saturday. Thursday night, AIA San Antonio's Committee on the Environment (COTE) hosted its bi-annual COTE Cinema event in partnership with the Hill Country Alliance.

They screened "The City Dark," a film released in 2011 which follows filmmaker Ian Cheney who moved from rural Maine to New York City – from nights that host billions of stars to no more than a dozen (if you're lucky).

 

The film boasts an impressive list of scientists, astrophysicists (including Neil deGrasse Tyson – swoon) astronomers, medical doctors, researchers and even lighting designers to explore the implications and unintended consequences of a star-less night. From disoriented, kamikaze birds and confused baby sea turtles (unarguably the most heart-breaking part) to the shrinking amount of places professional and amateur astronomers can get a good view; from links to breast cancer and depression to the simple loss of the inspiration for mythology, scientific advancements and art; the film makes a strong case for the "dark sky" movement.

About 35 people – students, architects and casual observers – gathered in front of the large, inflatable screen brought by Slab Cinema. COTE helps keep local architects up to date on the latest and best practices for building and design.

From left: Astronomer Bill Wren, Hill Country Alliance Intern Julie Cornelius, and AIA San Antonio COTE's Michelle and Carlos Cruz pose for a photo in the Cleary Zimmermann warehouse. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

From left: Astronomer Bill Wren, Hill Country Alliance Intern Julie Cornelius, and AIA San Antonio COTE's Michelle and Carlos Cruz pose for a photo in the Cleary Zimmermann warehouse after the dark sky film and presentation. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Astronomers (and architects) don't want to turn the lights off – they just want you to shade them from the sky and point them towards the ground, said William Wren, astronomer and special assistant to the superintendent at the University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis.

Wren spoke to the crowd after the film and focused his presentation on the common sense things humans can do to reduce light pollution. Seems simple enough – and it just so happens that doing so saves a ton of money in electricity and bulb costs.

"The solution is 90 percent education and 10 percent hardware," Wren said.

Most of it seems so obvious – why are we throwing light up and into trees on pathways and streets when the light is needed for cars, pedestrians and bikes (a.k.a. humans)?

Part of why is psychological, he said.

People have been afraid of the dark since the dawn of time – and it's a good instinct to have when you're part of the food chain. For millions of years, light = safer. So no one complains about light that exposes potential predators.

While the film suggested a connection, "there is no real, demonstrable correlation between lighting and crime," Wren said. "(Rather) people feel less afraid of crime in well-lit areas."

But the absence of night – true darkness – has been linked to other scary things. The film explains that the disruption of the natural rhythm of daylight and darkness has effects on all natural systems (remember the turtles), including humans. Besides the more obvious deleterious effect too much light can have on one's sleeping schedule, light – natural or artificial – is tied to melatonin production.

Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that controls the body's "daily cycles of systematic activities," is produced in darkness and inhibited by exposure to light. By experimenting with lab rats injected with breast cancer cells, melatonin was found to slow down or even stop the growth of cancerous tumors.

There are easy ways to light our public and private space while leaving the universe's space undisturbed by light pollution. Wren demonstrated by standing a small flashlight with an exposed light bulb on a piece of paper.

Bill Wren demonstrates the ineffective nature of lights without shades. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Bill Wren demonstrates the ineffective nature of lights without shades. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

"Pretend this is your property that you want to be lit up," Wren said, placing the light in the center. Everything, including our eyeballs, was illuminated except for the paper.

"Now look," he said, and he placed a little round hat around the bulb, focusing the light down. Our eyes were given reprieve and and instead the paper was illuminated.

It's almost too simple – too obvious. Duh.

If a bulb's energy is focused on the ground, you can see what you need to see and you can use lower wattage bulbs because you're not wasting all that light by projecting it into space. LED (Light Emitting Diode) lamps are even better – 70% more energy efficient.

"Unlike other environmental issues," said Wren,"This problem is (imminently) solvable ... it'll never be too late."

A slide from Wren's presentation illustrating energy savings for a building.

A slide from Wren's presentation illustrating energy savings achieved by installing shaded, motion sensor LEDs. Courtesy image.

Imagine if you could see a clear (or at least clearer) night sky beyond the Empire State Building, Shanghai or the Tower of Americas. Will it ever happen in San Antonio?

There are groups working towards these true nights in large cities, including  New York City, as well as the International Dark Sky Association, which has a chapter in Texas. Different approaches work in different places, but one thing is certain: it's easier for small towns to commit than it is for big, old cities.

A Stripes gas station in Alpine, Texas that retrofitted its lights to comply with local ordinance. Photos courtesy of Bill Wren.

A Stripes gas station in Alpine, Texas that retrofitted its lights to comply with local ordinance. Photos courtesy of Bill Wren.

A five mile radius around McDonald Observatory has been mandated by the Texas Legislature to follow dark-sky practices, but most small towns and communities complied before the law.

San Antonio has a light pollution ordinance [PDF], but it only applies to lighting within five miles of military training bases (Camp Bullis, Camp Stanley, Randolph Air Force Base and Lackland Air Force Base). The bases require dark nights for training purposes. This has led to a proliferation of ordinances across the nation, including ours.

Visit www.texasida.org for a list of Texas cities with light pollution ordinances.

"There's no need for (city) ordinances," Wren added.

Easy for a smaller community to say, perhaps. For larger municipalities, it's hard to get the word out.

"But things like this always start small," said Julie Cornelius, intern with the Hill Country Alliance who is studying to get a masters degree in sustainability. "We can start will small neighborhoods or districts and it'll get bigger."

Wren added, "Success in the county will work its way back into the city."

Beyond all the scientific and economic reasons to work towards dark sky – oh wait, there's one more you might not have thought about: "Tourism," said Cornelius. "Dark skies play a huge role in tourism."

Whether you're an astronomer or a casual observer of beauty, if you vacation in the Hill Country, you expect a beautiful landscape during the day and at night. Losing the night sky – like losing the peaceful silence of some Hill Country inns and campsites – would have an impact, Cornelius said.

Okay, now on to the possible creative, cultural and psychological impacts of losing a dark sky. It's a bit hard to measure and explain  "For example," Wren said and showed me:

Astronomer Bill Wren's photoshopped rendition of Van Gogh's iconic "Starry Night" if painted today. Image courtesy of Bill Wren.

Astronomer Bill Wren's photoshopped rendition of Van Gogh's iconic "Starry Night" if painted today. Image by Bill Wren.

"We are loosing something very profound," he said. "But it's hard to image what the effects will be ... of a generation that has never seen a starry sky."

Countless religious and cultural stories and entities are based on the stars (astrology, myths, gods, goddesses). Humans used stars for early navigation and to figure out that we were not in fact the center of the universe. Stars have inspired countless poems, paintings, songs, sculptures, photography ... something about the stars capture human creativity and imagination. If we couldn't see the stars, would we have ever made it to the moon?

"The astounding breadth and depth of the universe deflates our egos daily," Neil deGrasse Tyson states in his online blog:

"To know the cosmos requires that we have windows onto the universe that remain unfogged, untinted, and unpolluted. But the spread of what we call civilization, and the associated ubiquity of modern technology, is generally at odds with this mission. Unless something is done about it, people will soon bathe the Earth in a background glow of light that will block all access to the frontiers of cosmic discovery."

So, think of it as being a polite neighbor to your fellow humans who want to sit and get chills down their spine when their mother visits San Antonio. Really it's about being a good neighbor to the entire universe.

 *Featured/top image: Earth at Night, Nov. 27, 2000. Credit: C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC), NOAA/ NGDC, DMSP Digital Archive. Click to enlarge.

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6 thoughts on “Seeing the Milky Way in San Antonio — The Easiest Environmental Problem to Fix

  1. What an interesting, well-written and important article about an often over-looked topic. Thank you! I will pass it on the others.

  2. What an interesting, well-written and important article about an often over-looked topic. Thank you! I will pass it on to others.

  3. As the current Chairman of the Board of Visitors of the McDonald Observatory, I applaud this article by Iris. The folks at McDonald led by Bill Wren are working diligently with communities that are within a 50 mile radius of McDonald to have all their lighting focused downward to keep the ambient light to a very low level and are also working with the shale drilling operations that are closing in on Ft. Davis that have massive nighttime lighting and whose klieg lights are beginning to have a dimming effect on the Observatory’s ability to observe into the far reaches of the nighttime sky as well. The darkest skies in the continental US are at McDonald and if we are to keep McDonald in a position to make the incredible discoveries about the nature of the accelerating expansion of our universe, the exoplanets that may be conducive to supporting life, and many other areas of discovery being pursued, then dark skies are of paramount importance. Thanks for this great report along with all the others that the Rivard Report “brings to light”.

  4. We had the pleasure of seeing “The City Dark” at SXSW; its a beautifully made film well worth seeing. I’m very pleased to learn that planners and users are working to make better use of night illumination. Thank you!

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