mid-Missouri losing its night skies

With country life gradually giving way to suburban living in mid-Missouri, the region facing a problem that affects everyone - as more people move in and more buildings are built, the night sky is disappearing.

As places like Jefferson City and Columbia grow, a new chapter is beginning as mid-Missouri realizes a future with few stars in the sky is inevitable.

"I see the same things going on everywhere," Said Amateur Astronomer Val Germann. "Moberly, Mexico, Jefferson City, Sedalia. We have urban sprawl, and with urban sprawl comes parking lots. They illuminate 24 hours a day, for reasons unknown."

Germann has lived in the region his whole life. Germann said when he was young, Rock Bridge Memorial State Park was an ideal location to see the Milky Way. Now, he said, there is no place in mid-Missouri where there are astronomically dark skies.

"I have to drive now 700 miles to get away from the lighting of the midwest, and that's not even the East Coast." Germann said. "But for astronomically dark skies, you have to drive from 700 miles to the southwest from Columbia."

Germann said the closest place he can go for astronomically dark skies is the Oklahoma panhandle.

It's a problem University of Missouri's Dr. Angela Speck said makes it difficult for anyone in mid-Missouri with a telescope to see anything. Speck is a Professor of Astrophysics and Director of the Astronomy Department.

"We can basically see only very, very bright things," Speck said.

"It's barely more than you can see with the naked eye. We're seeing maybe 10% of what's out there."

However, the scope of the problem reaches beyond astronomers having difficulty with their research. Dr. Gracia Nabhane of Capital Region Medical Center said artificial light contributes to major sleep disorders as well.

"The most common are night shift sleep disorders and circadian rhythm sleep disorders," Nabhane said. "These are disorders that did not exist before the advent of artificial light."

Dr. Nabhane said many people who come to see her are so used to the effects of artificial light on their bodies that they rarely realize their natural sleep patterns are being disrupted. Nabhane said even the most basic education on the topic can help prevent a host of physical ailments.

She said much research remains to be done on the extent to which the disappearance of truly dark skies affects human health.

However, turning down the lights and restoring the dark sky is incredibly complicated. For places like Jefferson City to turn down the lights and restore the dark sky, all of the businesses and entities who own the lighting of each individual area would have to cooperate. Or, cities would have to pass citywide lighting ordinances that mandate businesses to turn down their lighting.

Jefferson City passed an ordinance in 2002 which called for all new buildings constructed to have energy efficient outdoor lighting, and introduced standards based on existing light pollution research.

However the ordinance was not retroactive, meaning the vast majority of buildings already constructed would not have to comply with the new lighting standards.

One real estate owner told KRCG13 he is actually willing to pay extra to keep the lights at his commercial development turned on during the night.

"I'm more concerned with the safety of our tenants and their security," Jim Jordan of Property Research Company said. "We're not being offensive to anyone, because we aren't adjacent to any residential properties."

Jordan also said to him, it's a matter of pride to make the buildings he owns on West Edgewood Drive look nice at night. Although Jordan's commercial properties only constitute a small fraction of all the buildings lit up at night, it remains in the hands of real estate owners to control their exterior lighting.

As mid-Missouri grows and more buildings are constructed, the night sky is becoming lost in the glare of opportunity.

Light pollution is a well-documented phenomenon across the entire world. For more information, click here.