by Melissa Federspill, staff writer
Friday evening’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math Expo keynote speaker was William Wren, a distinguished and award-winning advocate for dark sky preservation.
Wren has worked at the McDonald Observatory for 29 years and currently is the special assistant to the superintendent.
The McDonald Observatory is part of the University of Texas system, located on Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes in the Davis Mountains, 313 miles West of Uvalde.
The 500-acre site sits beneath some of the darkest skies in North America, partly due to a 1978 outdoor lighting ordinance maintained by the seven counties surrounding the observatory.
Wren’s work at the observatory involves helping maintain the region’s dark skies. He is responsible for a recent collaboration between the observatory and the petroleum industry.
Oil and gas expansion in West Texas threatens the region’s dark sky, and Wren has successfully worked with oil and gas companies to develop lighting guidelines for drilling rigs that are beneficial for both parties.
In an Uvalde Leader-News interview prior to his lecture on Friday evening, Wren spoke about the value of dark sky conservation.
The three areas of value that were addressed include economical, ecological and cultural benefits.
For municipalities, “there is an economical value to creating ordinances and design standards for businesses and residences geared to dark sky preservation,” said Wren.
Along with creating an economy for astro-tourism, there is the added benefit of energy savings.
“With the advent of LED lights, and the fact that they only consume about 20 percent of the energy of a regular bulb, cost savings are involved,” said Wren. “If design standards coincide with the use of a LED bulb, and the light is shielded properly, where the light is shined downward instead of upward, in the long run this is more sustainable for growth and development.”
From and ecological and public health standpoint, Wren stated that light pollution can alter the migration of birds, and for humans, interrupt our natural rhythms.
“There are many studies that have been conducted about the danger of exposure for humans to too much light, for example suppressed immune systems and low melatonin production,” explained Wren.
“As a species, we evolved under the cycle of light and darkness, and many now live in light to twilight cycles, as it never truly gets dark.”
Wren stated that preservation of the dark sky is not essential to living or staying alive, and is at times not as emphasized as other issues such as water conservation or tree conservation.
“It is not an essential element to our day-to-day survival, said Wren. “but in my opinion, it is an essential element for our cognitive development and how we see the world around us.”
On a cultural level, and how night sky preservation adds elements of heritage and rural character, Wren commented, “we are currently raising a generation of people who have never seen a dark night sky or the milky way.”
“Imagine a world where Van Gogh would have never seen the stars,” added Wren.
“The night sky is as awesome as it is inspiring, there is so much to be said about the larger context of the cosmos, and the world beyond our horizons.”
The city of Uvalde currently does not have any ordinances or design standards that are geared toward protecting our night sky.
City planner Susan Anderson stated that “this is something I would like to see personally, but it would need to be a city council priority.”
In 2016, Uvalde County Judge Bill Mitchell signed a resolution supporting efforts to preserve the night sky.