Way Out West Texas: Dark Skies

Way Out West Texas Dark Skies
Published: May. 18, 2023 at 1:15 AM CDT
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FAR WEST TEXAS (KOSA) - The Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky reserve is a 15,000 square mile region that has been designated as one of the largest dark sky places in the world. It is certified by the International Dark-Sky Association and recognizes the commitment of organizations, businesses and people to protect the night sky.

Teznie Pugh, Ph.D., the superintendent of the McDonald Observatory said dark skies are crucial to astronomers’ research and light pollution can impact data.

“If the background is brighter than we are not getting as much signal from our data, so not only is our ability to see things lessened, how much signal we’re getting from the things we can see is also lessened. We get more noise in our data, it makes our determinations less thorough and less precise,” Pugh said.

Stephen Hummel, the dark skies initiative coordinator with the McDonald Observatory said there are many ways to protect the night skies, including covered lighting and using more amber colored bulbs.

“The color is a little more of a soft yellow rather than a daylight white. If you have a very bluish-white color like daylight, that scatters more in the air so the light that reflects will wash out the stars more,” Hummel said.

However, it’s not just those with the observatory making the changes. It’s a collaborative effort between a number of organizations, businesses and people across roughly 10 million acres of land in far West Texas and Northern Mexico.

Joe Esparza, an Alpine business owner, said for him it was an easy decision to make the changes to his building.

“We’re in one of the darkest areas of the country and it’s beautiful here at night, not just during the day. Just look up! That was kind of the reasoning for why we did our part, our little part, of adding lampshades,” Esparza said.

Using special lighting not only benefits astronomical research, it also benefits wildlife and human health.

Hummel mentioned that unnatural lighting, including blue light, can affect a person’s circadian rhythm and suppress the immune system. However, implementing lighting changes is a small way to make a big difference.

“Dark skies are something that is integral to the culture of the Big Bend region. Just as the landscape is iconic, so too is the night sky above it. People here really connect with it and resonate with it in a way that I think is really rare in today’s society,” Hummel said, “although McDonald Observatory does a lot of work on this, none of it would be possible without the community believing in it and buying into the concepts.”

Keeping the skies dark and the stars shining bright is an ongoing mission, but one that benefits more than just astronomers.

For more information about the Dark Sky Initiative, visit the McDonald Observatory website.