By Don Corrigan
Jake Ronecker of Webster Groves recalls a night sky full of twinkling stars when he was a youngster. Much of that twinkling has disappeared. The dedicated naturalist is working to bring some celestial beauty back for kids of the future.
Ronecker and other members of the Missouri chapter of International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) will tell you that working to reduce light pollution can bring back twinkling stars, but it’s also all about bringing back a healthier planet.
“It’s sad that more than 80% of Americans can no longer look up and see the Milky Way where they live,” said Ronecker. “What’s even more worrying, though, is what light pollution is doing to our health, and the well-being of other creatures on the planet.”
Consider the birds of the air, as a prophet of old once told us. Birds are having a tough time migrating and surviving. They no longer can see the stars that might guide them to where they need to fly, but they do see plenty of lights.
According to Ronecker, the Mississippi River Flyway is an important sky-high highway for birds. The lights of St. Louis and those on the Gateway Arch have disrupted the flight patterns and bird migrations for years.
“St. Louis as a geographic point has been the fifth most deadly flyway location for migrating birds,” said Ronecker. “The birds lose track of where they are going. They start flying in circles. They are lost to exhaustion.
“We are seeing some progress here,” said Ronecker. “People may notice that lights shining on the Gateway Arch are now turned off for two weeks in May and in September. IDA would like to see that expanded to more weeks to aid the birds.”
The National Park Service describes the move to turn off the Arch lights as an “operational decision based on science.” About 40% of the nation’s migratory waterfowl use the Mississippi corridor every spring and fall.
Stephanie Todd of Olivette, who serves on the IDA board along with Ronecker, can describe many actions in Missouri which show the state is making progress on light pollution issues. She focuses on light issues in state and local parks.
Caitlin Zera, vice president of the Sierra Club of Eastern Missouri, has chronicled Todd’s IDA work for her organization’s SierraScape publication. Zera noted Todd’s role in getting Stacy Park in Olivette declared as an Urban Dark Sky Place.
Zera, who received an environmental journalism certificate from Webster University, supports the work of Todd and IDA. She emphasized that it’s not necessary to have studied the environment in college to be active in IDA or Sierra Club.
Dark Sky Progress
The state of Missouri is seldom cited as a cutting edge actor on environmentalism. However, the state has shown promise in addressing light pollution. Three economics professors at Missouri State University have written an influential study on the subject.
In their study, “The Economics of Global Light Pollution,” the three professors argue that sending lots of light into the night sky is a colossal waste of energy. It does not make economic sense; it’s not solely an environmental or aesthetic concern.
Extravagant and misdirected light from streetlights, residences and commercial properties are not simply an annoyance, they affect the physical and mental health of humans, according to professors Terrel Gallaway, Reed Neil Olsen and David Mitchell.
The professors at MSU in Springfield explain that light pollution affects birds, mammals, amphibians, insects and even plants. They emphasize that human physiology is adversely affected by light pollution.
The study refers to increased risks of breast cancer in women with lower levels of melatonin production due to light pollution. The problem is that light pollution keeps humans from falling asleep, resulting in less melatonin production.
The MSU professors’ study has inspired several Missouri legislators to introduce bills in reduce light at night to closer to natural light levels. Their bills have been dismissed as “snowflake proposals” by skeptical colleagues.
Naturalist Ronecker of Webster Groves said the movement to address light pollution is about where the fight against tobacco-use was 15 years ago. At that time, people who may have given up smoking were realizing second-hand smoke was harmful as well.
“People need to know that we are not saying you don’t need lights at night,” said Ronecker of IDA. “We are saying we don’t need to be flooded in light and we need more efficiency in lighting and in our energy use.
Ronecker said the IDA goal is to replace harsh lights, and if that can’t be done, then retrofit the light fixtures to direct light downward. He cited the “acorn tops” that have been placed on street lamps for this purpose.
Walk In The Park
IDA’s Todd has a goal now of making your walk in the state park a little darker by reducing unnecessary lights. Get out those flash lights, campers.
Todd said the state chapter of IDA has a listing of parks with good night sky visibility. She wants to increase the numbers on that list. She is working now on three specific parks to get night sky certification.
“It will take a couple years to get the three certifications in place,” said Todd. “Once that happens, we will be in a good position to get all of our state parks into a place where park users will be able to see the wonders of night skies.”
Todd worked for the Boeing Company before retiring to do volunteer work with IDA and other environmental groups. Roenecker worked in chemistry with Monsanto, now the Bayer Corporation, before his new avocations with IDA and environmentalism.
IDA members like Ronecker and Todd are available to speak to groups in the St. Louis region on their mission to bring back into view the many constellations and galaxies in our night skies. They have spoken at local garden clubs and libraries.
“Right now, we’re gearing up for our IDA Earth Day booth in Forest Park,” said Ronecker. “We had our first booth last year and it’s a great place to generate interest.”
Earth Day in Forest Park is slated for the Muny Grounds on April 22-23. Ronecker and Todd will be emphasizing the five guidelines for night sky advocates:
– Light only what you need.
– Use energy efficient bulbs.
– Shield lights and direct light downward.
– Only use light when you need it.
– Choose warm, white light bulbs.
Of course, a membership in the International Dark-Sky Association can be another bright idea, according to Ronecker and Todd.
For more information, check out websites: darksky.org (International Dark-Sky Association); darkskymissouri.org (Dark Sky – Missouri Chapter)