It was a chilly September night in the Davis Mountains, deep in the isolated expanse of West Texas. Some 200 people had gathered at the McDonald Observatory outside Fort Davis, hours from the nearest airport, for one of its thrice-weekly Star Parties. The sun receded toward the horizon, and distant peaks shimmered on a canvas of pink, orange, and violet before disappearing into velvety darkness. The only visible lights were red, ground-level bulbs, illuminating the walkway to an amphitheater where we were corralled by a group of astronomers for 45 minutes: the time, we were told, that it would take our eyes to acclimate to true darkness.
We sat in a circle around our emcee, an astronomy buff named Kelly, who promised to take us on a tour through the constellations but only after laying down a few ground rules. Cell phones were strictly prohibited; even just a flash from the screen would undo our developing night vision. If we must leave early, it was imperative that we back out and descend the mountain from the right to avoid bouncing headlights off the observatory. We must also beware of the “suicidal” javelinas, wild hogs that, Kelly swore, wait for cars to come around curves before dashing across the street.
Almost any urban dweller, unaware of how the night sky appears without the glare of electricity, would have described the night as dark. There were no pinpricks of artificial light anywhere aboveground. Even still, the peaks to the north never fully disappeared, their outlines clearly visible, as if permanently backlit by stage lights: the glow cast by burning natural gas and rigs lit up like Christmas trees at the oil-drilling sites, which start just 60 miles north of the observatory.
The craggy nighttime outlines of the high desert only became visible around 2010, when horizontal drilling—in which wells are approached from new angles—resuscitated oil fields previously believed to be tapped out. The glow, says Bill Wren, a special assistant to the observatory superintendent, “was kind of a curiosity at first. Then we realized we could see Black Mountain silhouetted against the sky. That’s when I grabbed my little laptop and started going to all the oil and gas conventions that I could.”
Today 40 percent of oil and gas rigs working in the United States are located on what is known as the Permian Basin, a vast oil reserve covering 75,000 square miles in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. In an effort to dim the lights given off by these operations, the observatory launched the Dark Skies Initiative, a collaboration with oil and gas drillers to change the way they illuminate their fields before they permanently fog the astronomer’s window into the universe.
For most of its 85 years the observatory, which houses one of the largest optical telescopes in the world, was thought to be safely south of the oil fields. Girded by the Davis Mountains in the north and the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park in the south, this part of Texas has some of the darkest skies in the US. The observatory is currently in the final stages of a $40 million upgrade to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, its largest on-site, which will allow it to participate in an international project to explore why the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate rather than slowing down, a phenomenon scientists now attribute to a mysterious force they refer to as “dark energy.”
Staring into the cosmos is among the most elemental of human experiences, connecting our most advanced science to our ancestors in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. Yet thanks to urbanization and industrialization, says Rémi Boucher, a science communicator at Mont-Mégantic Observatory in Québec, “the stars are going extinct for most people. They can’t even see the Milky Way. They’ve lost this connection with the dark sky.”
In 2007 Mont-Mégantic National Park became the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, as designated by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Boucher, like Wren at the McDonald Observatory, works as a liaison with nearby communities to educate the park’s neighbors about better lighting techniques. “Living in a city, you don’t know what you’re missing,” he says.
Since its founding in Arizona in 1988, the IDA has advocated for protecting the night, a vision it has since spread around the globe. In September Ramon Crater Nature Reserve in Israel’s Negev Desert received the first International Dark Sky Place designation in the Middle East, taking its place alongside reserves in Korea, Australia, and Hungary, as well as a growing number of parks and municipalities throughout the United States. “Fifteen years ago people gave us weird looks,” says Boucher, “but at this point, people have heard the basics of light pollution.”
“Fifteen years ago people gave us weird looks, but at this point, people have heard the basics of light pollution.”
A key component of all dark-sky campaigns is changing the notion that more light equals better visibility. In fact, brighter lights can reduce visibility by increasing the glare that shines directly into people’s eyes. The IDA stresses that a dark sky doesn’t necessarily mean a dark ground. It just means directing light where it’s needed and shielding outdoor bulbs so that their rays are funneled downward, not shooting wastefully into the sky.
The section of the sky that researchers at McDonald Observatory will be pointing the optical telescope toward—not far from the Big Dipper—remains pristinely dark. The Hobby-Eberly will be looking for galaxies 10 to 12 billion light-years away, peering into a time when the universe was only a few billion years old. The sky there would have to brighten a full astronomical magnitude, or about 158 percent, to impact research, says Wren. Standing at the observatory and looking out at the entire sky, the background is about 18 percent brighter than it would be without any artificial illumination, he says.
For now, the research is safe, but the glow keeps growing. Unlike other oil fields in the United States, most of which reigned in production after prices fell in 2014, the Permian Basin keeps yielding potential blockbusters. In September 2016 Houston-based Apache Corporation announced that it had discovered the equivalent of 15 billion barrels of oil and gas in a field about 30 miles away from the McDonald Observatory. In physics, the inverse square law states that light shines brighter closer to its source, which means that it’s now more urgent than ever for the oil industry to get on board with better, less intrusive lighting practices.
Even so, Wren insists that he and his colleagues are not calling for a moratorium on drilling. “There is nothing productive from becoming adversarial and in any way trying to stop them from doing what they’re going to do,” he says. “Oil and gas exploration and production can go unabated as long as the light shines down toward the ground. Just keep the light on your site and out of the sky and we’ll get along just fine.”
Many major drillers in the area have been receptive to the IDA’s recommendations. On Wren’s first visit to a rig a few years ago, he met a driller who had stuffed a rag against a light to keep the glare out of his eyes: a perfect illustration of what Wren hoped to show the rig’s managers. Installing lower-wattage bulbs and shielding the light could benefit both worker safety and the night sky.
Rig site managers now regularly inspect light fixtures, but the issue of natural-gas flaring, which releases giant fireballs into the sky, is a harder one to resolve. Most companies are drilling for oil, so they simply burn off or release gaseous byproducts to avoid a larger conflagration. The equipment to contain flares is far costlier—millions of dollars costlier—than changing lightbulbs.
None of this came up on that night at the Star Party. It was the Friday night before Labor Day, and Hurricane Harvey had just unleashed historic rainfall on Houston, where I live. While the local paper labored to catalog the damages to America’s fourth-largest city, national and social media were pointing out—some perhaps too gleefully—the connection between the city’s main industry and rising water temperatures, which are believed to have amped up the current crop of killer storms. For many, Texas seemed to be reaping what it had sown.
That night at the observatory we assiduously avoided the subject that burned away just over the mountains, illuminating the sky. As soon as the sun set, temperatures dipped into the low 60s. My sons and I had our winter fleeces and hats at the ready. Other families sat wrapped in blankets. We wandered between the dozen or so telescopes—some standing, others fixed in smaller observatories—set up for our perusal. My sons, ages 12, 11, and 8, plotted which celestial stops to prioritize in case the clouds sent us inside to a much less exciting video display.
All of us lingered at an extreme close-up of the moon’s pockmarked surface. An exceptionally bright moon and clouds kicked up by a front moving in from Mexico obscured our view of Jupiter, prompting a “sincere apology” from our astronomer guides. One man repeated the same joke to every telescope attendant, asking if he could get his money back.
Those attending the telescopes are a mix of professional astronomers and others who “full time just love space,” says Karen Caswell, a fifth-grade teacher who moonlights at the Star Parties. She started bringing her students out a few years ago to brush up on basic astronomy. She came back so much that the Visitors Center’s manager asked her if she would like to stay and help out.
Caswell lives just under the observatory on Casket Mountain. Out here, she says, looking up at night is part of people’s lives. “We just go outside and start pointing out constellations,” she says. “Most people who live out here have some kind of telescope or even small observatories that they’ve built.”
She says no light fixture is too trivial to escape the observatory’s notice. When she and her husband put up a light on the road to guide their kids down the hairpin twists and turns when coming home after football games, Wren’s office asked them to shield it to keep the rays from shooting upward. They willingly complied, she says, as do most of the people nearby.
“The dark skies are very precious out here.”
Originally published on Roads & Kingdoms on Oct. 24, 2017.