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Amateur Astronomers Measure Light Pollution To Preserve Dark Skies In Missouri

The Missouri chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association has placed devices that measure sky brightness around the state. The chapter aims to use the data to reduce light pollution, including near Kirksville, Missouri, where this photo was taken.
The Missouri chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association has placed devices that measure sky brightness around the state. The chapter aims to use the data to reduce light pollution, including near Kirksville, Missouri, where this photo was taken.

A group of amateur astronomers has planted devices around Missouri to measure how much artificial lighting brightens the night sky. 

The Missouri chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association, formed last year, wants to capture data on light pollution. Satellite imaging shows artificial lighting at night has steadily increased in recent years

There appears to be a “tsunami” of nighttime artificial lighting observed in satellite images that’s increasing from the East Coast toward the middle of the country, said Don Ficken, the chapter’s president. 

“If we can slow it down, that would be a good thing,” Ficken said. 

The group also wants to stress the adverse effects that light pollution has on human health and the environment. A study this year suggested that artificial light was causing some species of songbirds to collide with illuminated buildings. 

“There’s a lot of things going on right now that are messing up everything from bees to fireflies to bats,” Ficken said. “Trees literally will keep their leaves on too long when there’s lights next to it.” 

The Dark-Sky chapter has placed the devices, called sky quality meters, at a dozen sites, including Jefferson College in Hillsboro and Broemmelsiek Park in Defiance. The devices will collect data on sky brightness every five minutes for about a year, Ficken said. 

Members of the International Dark-Sky Association chapter have placed sky quality meters that will make measurements of sky brightness every day for about a year.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
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Members of the International Dark-Sky Association chapter have placed sky quality meters that will make measurements of sky brightness every day for about a year.

The NASA-Missouri Space Grant Consortium has given more than $16,000 to the Missouri chapter in the past two years to help pay for the sky quality meters.   

Truman State University physics professor Vayujeet Gokhale, a member of the chapter, has also been measuring sky brightness in Missouri with the help of his students. Gokhale received a grant from the university to change light fixtures on campus to direct more light to the ground and away from the sky. Loading...

Chapter members want to use the sky-brightness data collected from sites to encourage state park managers and city officials to use warm-colored light bulbs and light shields to reduce light pollution. 

They hope to secure a Dark Sky Place designation for one of Missouri’s parks from the International Dark-Sky Association. That designation has been given to areas where locals have made a significant effort to reduce light pollution at night, such as the Buffalo National River in Arkansas and the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve. 

“Until about a year or so ago, I didn’t really think much about light pollution. I’ve been an amateur astronomer, I’ve noticed that the skies are getting brighter all the time,” Ficken said. “But as I’ve gotten into [learning about light pollution], it’s pretty darn serious, the impact this has on life, ecosystems, stargazing, human health and energy [costs].”

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Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.