West Virginia’s rural landscape offers stargazers a respite from urban light pollution.
This story was originally published in the February 2015 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.
written by Mikenna Pierotti
When the sun sets in Calhoun County, something unusual happens. At least it’s unusual in the heavily populated eastern half of the United States, and it’s becoming increasingly more unusual around the world. In Calhoun County, as darkness falls over fields and forests, the unobstructed night sky takes the spotlight. On a clear moonless night, stars fade in like stage lights, first a few dozen, then a few hundred, then thousands. From a pitch-dark knoll in Calhoun County Park, surrounded by 150 acres of pastoral meadows and pine forests, a stargazer can see farther and deeper into the universe than nearly anywhere else in the region. “We astronomers are always in search of dark skies,” says Brian Ottum, an amateur astronomer and photographer. “But they’re hard to find.”
Ottum hails from Michigan and is a regular volunteer park ranger who teaches visitors about astronomy in Utah’s famous Bryce Canyon National Park, but he chose Calhoun County for his stargazing vacation in 2010. “The park used to be a golf course, so you have all these open spaces between heavily forested valleys and the weather is much milder than places in the north. Overall it’s close and it’s just a beautiful setting. And it’s very dark at night.”
Darkness—at least the kind humanity evolved to sleep beneath—is rare. Take a look at a light pollution map and you’ll begin to understand. Urban centers cast a glow over hundreds of miles, illuminating particles in the atmosphere and creating an artificial halo of light from horizon to horizon. Most Americans in the 21st century never see more than a few dozen of the brightest celestial bodies and only on the clearest of nights. “Development and poor use of outdoor lighting keeps most of us from seeing the night sky as we’re meant to see it. Most people have never even seen the Milky Way. And it’s getting worse and worse,” Ottum says. “In most places, it’s never really dark. But it’s not an issue that has gotten much attention. It’s not just about being unable to see a passing comet or the Milky Way. The major issue is that it’s affecting our natural sleep cycles and there is research that says it’s making us ill. It also negatively affects animals like turtles and migratory birds. It’s just not natural.”
Duncan Lorimer, professor in the physics and astronomy department at West Virginia University, says the biggest affect of light pollution will be on the next generation.
“Having dark skies becomes especially important when we interface with the public,” he says. “The more places you have where people can actually see into space, the better. It’s an important tool to get people interested in these fields—in science, technology, and math. When you lose that window, you lose a lot of potential outreach to future scientists.”
According to the National Park Service, light pollution is growing faster than global population—as much as 10 percent annually in some places. But so far, rural parts of West Virginia—places like Calhoun County Park and Spruce Mountain in Pendleton County—have remained largely unaffected by an overabundance of artificial light and offer some of the best stargazing east of the Mississippi. Bob Weaver, Calhoun County commissioner and editor of the local online newspaper the Hur Herald says it’s always been that way. “I grew up in the backwoods of Calhoun, unafraid of walking up and down the mud roads without a light. The only two places in the county that had streetlights were Grantsville and Arnoldsburg,” Weaver says.
Although Calhoun remains one of West Virginia’s least populated counties, it—just like every corner of the nation—is under threat from artificial light. “LEDs are dramatically more efficient and programmable and last a lot longer. And LEDs are allowing us to replace old inefficient streetlights and that’s a good thing. But they are also dramatically brighter. I’d say they up the illumination by a factor of 10,” Ottum says. “But it’s so easy to address with a little common sense. We don’t have to completely halt development. With the right lighting design—with downward facing lighting and light covers—we can mitigate the effects.”
Members of the Appalachian Regional Commission, economic developers, county officials, astronomers, and researchers are now actively working to protect and promote Calhoun County Park by constructing the state’s first dark skies park. “It started with a few amateur astronomers in the late 1990s who discovered that Calhoun County was among a few dark sky locations on the East Coast,” Weaver says. “They started setting up at the park and told their friends.” In 2013 a survey went out to amateur astronomers in nearby states to gauge interest in the potential park and the response was overwhelming—300 responded positively and many had already made the trek to Calhoun County to stargaze on their own.
Weaver says the county is now in the planning stages of a star park project that may cost around $1 million. Although Calhoun County Park already contains a Heritage Village of historic buildings, a barn often rented for community events and overnight stays, and hiking and biking trails, constructing concrete pads for telescopes and improving restrooms are two small things that could help to attract astronomers and tourists. Weaver says the county has already received an $8,000 grant to launch the star park project with the potential to increase it to $150,000. “It could bring several hundred thousand amateur astronomers to the county,” he says.
While Ottum believes interest in preserving dark skies like those in Calhoun is growing, it’s slow. He hopes, with advances in photography and the dropping cost of highquality cameras, people will turn their attention back to the night sky and finally take notice of the incredible resource that’s disappearing right before their eyes. “Unfortunately places like Calhoun are under threat,” Ottum says. And the loss of this opportunity to bring in tourism dollars while protecting Calhoun’s skies won’t just affect astronomers, he says. “The most memorable and surprising thing about my trip to Calhoun County was the people I met,” he says. “They were just so nice and so generous. It would be a shame for others to miss out on that.”
Calhoun County Park, 380 Park Place, Grantsville. Call 304.354.6301 for more information about renting the park’s barn for a night of stargazing.