Searching for starry, starry nights
A few days earlier, I’d pulled into the Upper Madera Canyon Campground in Big Bend Ranch and pitched my tent between a patch of green ocotillo and a few cacti. The park was largely deserted. The heat, the rain, and the end of summer had sent everyone home, save for park rangers, law enforcement, and a handful of locals passing through on FM 170. I’d welcomed the lonely scene. Loneliness meant darkness, and finding darkness was getting harder.
Growing up on California’s Central Coast in the 1980s and ’90s, I’d often stargazed with my parents. As we stood in our driveway or lay on blankets in the backyard, my dad, an astronomy enthusiast, would point out the core of the Milky Way and explain our position within its spiraling arms. I’d look out at constellations and dream of becoming an astronaut. Adulthood felt as far away as Orion’s Belt, and the possibilities seemed as endless as the night sky.
As I got older and moved around the U.S., I took up astronomy and photography and often drove hundreds of miles to escape city lights. I traveled to some of the darkest places on Earth: the Atacama Desert, the Serengeti plains, Patagonia, New Zealand, and, closer to home, Death Valley and Big Bend. Then one night several years ago, I stood in my parents’ driveway, looked up at the sky, and realized the Milky Way was all but invisible. The town had grown. New neighborhoods had popped up, and the soft-yellow street lamps that I’d grown up with had been replaced by garish-blue bulbs. The once-dark sky was now lost to the light.
Losing in a light-filled world
It’s happening almost everywhere. Across the United States and around the world, dark skies are disappearing at an alarming rate. According to the “2016 New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness,” published in Science Advances, more than 99 percent of people living in the U.S. and Europe “live under light-polluted skies.” Nearly 80 percent of North Americans can’t see the Milky Way.
A number of spots in the U.S.—mostly in the Southwest—still have dark night skies. Some, including four Texas state parks, have been certified as Dark Sky Places by the Tucson, Arizona–based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit that began its UNESCO-style certification program in 2001. Many Texans are working to stop the spread of light pollution and ensure that the state’s dark-sky areas endure in places from the Gulf to the Panhandle. In a part of West Texas that includes the Big Bend region and a significant portion of the Permian Basin, scientists and educators are a driving force in the effort.
The man who wants to save the darkness
That’s why I left the town of Alpine early one morning and watched the Chihuahuan Desert fall away as I drove into the Davis Mountains to the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory. I had an appointment to meet the Angel of Darkness. An affable and soft-spoken man, Bill Wren heads the observatory’s Dark Skies Initiative. His mission is simple: to save the darkness.
In much of the U.S., dark skies are disappearing due to the growth of cities. But out here around the observatory, darkness is threatened by a different source.
“For 70 years, the brightest thing [on the horizon] was El Paso-Juarez, 165 miles away from us,” Wren told me as we sat in his office on the ground floor of the observatory’s dome. But nearly a decade ago, that began to change. “We started noticing the northeastern horizon lighting up from the Permian Basin,” he said. The primary culprit? Oil- and gas-related activities, including drilling rigs. The Permian Basin was booming. “But it’s not just oil and gas rigs,” Wren said. “It’s all the commerce that comes with that—hotels, storage facilities, big-box stores.”
Fortunately, out here the glow emanating from those areas is low on the horizon. The sky over the observatory is still dark, and research hasn’t been affected. The goal is to keep it that way, and Wren is on a quest to educate others. At oil and gas conferences, he shows photos of bad lighting and increased glare to anyone who’ll pay attention. He also makes the case for reduced lighting in economic terms: All those bright lights are an enormous waste of money (roughly $3.3 billion nationwide per year); and brighter lights often don’t make areas safer.