Naturalists and astronomers fight light pollution

When it comes to dark skies, seeing the light is not a good thing

Forgive the pun, but astronomer Tom Gwilym wants more people to “see the light” on the protection of the dark skies of Door County. And he is not alone in this effort.

Gwilym, vice president of the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society, recently launched an email campaign to try and do something about a lighted billboard along Hwy 42/57 northeast of Sturgeon Bay. He said it contributes to light pollution around his neighboring yard and creates light disturbance around the Ray and Ruthie Stonecipher Astronomy Center, which is adjacent to the Crossroads at Big Creek Natural Area east of town.

Additionally, Gwilym and Crossroads naturalist Coggin Heeringa is asking people to turn off unnecessary lights at night and use less intrusive lighting throughout the county, especially near Crossroads in Big Creek.

“The billboards have lights that shine in the sky,” Heeringa said of the signs one mile south of the start of the Door County Scenic Byway, where the billboards cannot be lit. “Tom has disgusting photos of how the sky is obscured by lights. The problem is [that] the lights should be directed down and shielded, not up to the sky.

“If you try to do astrophotography, which we do in our observatory, the light completely erases the images of a whole part of the sky.”

The electronic side of this billboard is more notorious, but the lights shining upward on the more traditional sign near Hwy 42/57 and Gordon Road are of more concern to naturalists, the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society, and those which operate its neighboring observatory. Photo by Tom Gwilym.

Heeringa added that artificial light is also hampering his goal of making Crossroads a stopover site for migrating birds. She explained that artificial light affects migratory birds that navigate through the stars, disrupts the nocturnal breeding patterns of animals and insects, causes animals to avoid certain places, and can cause plants to “put on scent” at night. , when pollinators do not fly.

To the north, Newport State Park naturalist Beth Bartoli must provide at least two light meter readings each year to the International Dark-Sky Association to maintain Newport’s designation as Wisconsin’s first Dark Sky Preserve. .

She said Newport has one of the darkest skies in the state, thanks to its location on 2,700 acres of wilderness at the tip of a peninsula. Even so, the lights of Sister Bay, nine miles southwest, appear on his meter. Bartoli addressed the Sister Bay Village Board of Directors to urge the village to use amber bulbs or dimmable lamps to replace the new bright white LED street lights.

Bartoli said rural residents are also contributing to light pollution by using bare-bulb patio lighting and sodium lights that stay on all night, altering the Newport night sky. Motion-sensing lights are best for security, and timers that turn off lights late at night are helpful in combating light pollution. Bartoli stressed the need for hooded or sheltered lights from above and that don’t tilt on neighboring properties.

Gwilym called on Destination Door County (DDC) to urge local businesses to light up their properties without “projecting light” into the night sky. He emailed DDC after noticing that the organization’s promotional material mentioned how visitors can take in the county’s dark skies and sometimes get a great view of the Northern Lights.

When asked if DDC provides local businesses with information on dark sky compatible lighting, Jon Jarosh, Director of Communications and Acting Head of DDC, said: “At this point we don’t have it. not done, but it’s quite an intriguing idea.

Jarosh said the designation of Newport State Park prompted the DDC to mention dark skies in general, as visitors are often amazed at how many stars they can see in many places in the county, and he said he hadn’t heard many visitors complaining about light pollution.

Gwilym is the Chief Computer Operator and “Telescope Tweaker” for the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society. He considers the darkest places in the county to be tourist attractions. It counts company assets among these, in large part because the facility is often open to the public and has a better setup than many universities, thanks to its observatory and 16-inch computer-controlled telescope. Gwilym said astronomers and those who cannot see many planets or constellations in their hometown often comment on the darkness of the Door County skies during stargazing events.

He said that before the electronic panel and adjacent billboard went up, he could easily make out the Milky Way in the sky above his house. He reached out to Rob Wamsley, Link Media’s new Green Bay regional manager, the owner of the billboard, to ask the company to change the lights on the non-electronic side of the billboard to shine towards down on the panel rather than up. He also believes motorists could very well see the sign if the lights were dimmer.

Wamsley did not call back the Pulse Peninsula for this article, but at the end of May he emailed Gwilym. Wamsley told Gwilym that he loves the outdoors and the night sky, and he later sent this response: “The whole area with Culvers, the gas station and the parking lot certainly creates an island of commercial light in this. zoned. I asked if our subcontractor could reorient the lights to point more directly at the panel rather than pointing so much up to the sky. Beyond that, I have another idea that we could look into. We are actively investigating this, and I will let you know as soon as I know more.

Before sending an email to Wamsley, Gwilym spoke this year with Mariah Goode, Director of Planning Services for Door County, to urge her to do something about the night glow that the sign display adds to the horizon to the northwest of the property of the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society and its observatory. . Goode informed Gwilym that the best option would be for him to contact Link Media directly.

If the owner or the media company voluntarily wants to change the direction of the lights, “that would be great,” Goode said via email. “But we can’t make them do this. This particular sign is not a sign that we can do anything about.

The county had tried to deny Link Media’s permits for the billboard and others in the spring of 2019, but Link appealed, and the court essentially ruled that the county’s billboard ordinance could be considered discriminatory as to the content of the messages on the signs, even if that was not the county’s intention. Rather than having a chapter of its zoning ordinance “completely exploded,” the county authorized the sign and then rewrote the provisions for the sign.

The county has a light pollution ordinance that applies to the nine cities under county jurisdiction. The ordinance governs the lighting of new signs, the new lights of existing signs and the lighting of collective housing estates.

How dark are the Dark-Sky Parks?

This map shows the light generated by city centers seen from above. Submitted.

Tom Gwilym, vice president of the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society and operator of its 16-inch telescope at the Ray and Ruthie Stonecipher Astronomy Center, said the observatory and the company’s property east of Sturgeon Bay have a reading of 4 on the Bortle. Scale, a term for measuring light related to “amplitudes per arc second”. The lower the number, the darker the sky and the more stars visible.

Gwilym said visitors to places that typically have this amount of artificial light can usually see the Milky Way quite well on a clear night. By comparison, Newport State Park has much better naked eye conditions than society, with the Milky Way being fairly clear most nights and a Bortle scale reading of around 2.

Newport remains Wisconsin’s only Dark-Sky park – as designated by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) – and it is one of 20 parks in the country.

If the Door Peninsula Astronomy Society tried to get an IDA designation – and they didn’t – there would be Dark-Sky IDA locations with a brighter-than-land night sky east of Sturgeon Bay. The closest IDA-recognized Dark-Sky community – Homer Glen, Illinois – has a score of about 5 on the Bortle scale, but it deals with the glow of the southwestern Chicago suburbs as well as Joliet and Midway International Airport.

However, communities and parks need more than just a dark sky to gain Dark-Sky recognition. Newport naturalist Beth Bartoli discussed the complicated application process that Newport’s Dark Sky funders have gone through. Before they were even invited to apply, they needed letters of support from the community, meter readings at 14 locations in the park, and photographic evidence of night sky visibility, including the clarity of the Milky Way.

They also had to prove that the park would provide community awareness and education, protect habitat, and encourage the community to continue to point the lights down, not up and out.

Out of the three levels of darkness levels – gold, silver and bronze – Newport sits between gold and silver.

“At the moment we are not in danger of losing this designation because of our dark sky level,” Bartoli said.

However, if the Friends of Newport State Park organization did not pay the salary for the naturalist position, the park could lose its dark sky designation due to the deterioration of its educational and outreach programming.

About Hannah Schaeffer

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