University of Redlands prof explores darkness

Redlands Daily Facts (CA), August 29, 2007

Author: ANDREW EDWARDS, Staff Writer

REDLANDS - University of Redlands physics professor Tyler Nordgren is on a journey.

Nordgren is in the early part of what he plans to be a yearlong trip to various national parks to find out what people can see in the dark.

The real dark. For the professor, a place like Bryce Canyon National Park is an ideal stop on his travels.

"It's just in the middle of an absolutely dark spot in Utah," he said. "There are things in the sky I've never seen before." Those things, of course, are stars.

Standing in the middle of a city block, surrounded by street lights and maybe even a few neon signs, a stargazer would be lucky to see the stars that make up Orion's belt.

Campers who have visited places such as Joshua Tree National Park know that it's possible to see a lot more of the Milky Way there than can be viewed with the naked eye from urban zones like the Inland Empire.

Nordgren is concerned that increasing development around national parks means more light from earthbound sources is overpowering distant starlight.

His travels are a mission to examine ways to conserve night sky views on public lands.

"As dark as it is there (Joshua Tree) now, it's not as dark as it used to be," Nordgren said.

In 2004, Joshua Tree administrators surveyed park guests and learned that about 29 percent of the park's visitors - more than 350,000 people - made the trip to Joshua Tree to check out the night sky, park spokesman Joe Zarki said.

"We're having a greater appreciation of the night sky as a visual resource that's of use to the public," he said.

Zarki said he agreed with Nordgren's observation that the skies above Joshua Tree are not as dark as they once were.

"Development on the periphery of the park, as it grows, it's going to have an impact," Zarki said.

Joshua Tree is not on Nordgren's itinerary, but several other parks are.

The professor is maintaining a blog about his efforts, and his sabbatical includes planned stops at 12 parks, from Denali National Park in Alaska to Acadia National Park in Maine.

Nordgren remarked that the skies above Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado are affected by the city lights of Denver and Boulder, but park administrators work to make the place attractive to amateur astronomers by providing free "telescope piers," areas where visitors can park their optical gear and gaze at the universe.

Astronomers use the term "light pollution" to describe man-made illumination that can overpower starlight.

Pollution might seem like a harsh word for light, especially when compared to the kinds of obviously filthy contaminants that dirty air and water.

"Some people don't even know what I'm talking about because they've never heard that term before," Nordgren said. Although light pollution is not as infamous as, say, particulate matter, carbon monoxide or lead, efforts to reduce excessive illumination do exist.

The International Dark-Sky Association, headquartered in Tucson, Ariz., was founded in 1988 to reduce light pollution. The group advocates for limited night-time illumination as a means to preserve night sky views and conserve energy.

Nordgren said he is not going about his journey with any preconceived ideas on how to preserve nighttime views.

He said he wants to "sort of play this by ear" and write a report on his findings when he returns to Redlands.


Thurber really knows his stuff.

Thurber learned The Och Tamale when he was just a pup. Don't know it yet?

Listen now »