When Tyler Nordgren first saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on TV, he knew he wanted to commit his life to the stars. “Science is the ultimate expression of the human condition,” he says, remembering that moment. “Astronomy is the vast tapestry of space. I can’t imagine anything greater.”
He was 10.
Nordgren did grow up to study physics and astronomy, working on projects for Mars exploration rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. But in 2007, the University of Redlands professor also undertook another huge project: A year-long quest to photograph the dark skies of national parks.
Over the last century, light pollution has slowly crowded out views of the stars that once taught humans how to navigate. Studies have shown that round-the-clock light from growing cities disorients the natural habits of birds and other animals, and some scientists say this type of pollution exacerbates daytime smog. There’s also evidence that light pollution has a significant impact on human health. In 2009, the American Medical Association released a statement warning of constant, low-grade lighting’s effect on the body’s secretion of melatonin, which could result in certain cancers. The AMA added that glare poses a threat for older drivers, and the disruption of circadian rhythms because of excess light could aggravate obesity, diabetes, mood disorders, and reproductive problems.
But there are some places on the planet that actively try to preserve the darkness of their skies. For Nordgren, documenting the nightscapes of 14 national parks was motivated by aesthetics as much as it served a mission of environmental activism.
“For most of our history, science has been promoted by people who are interested in the stars, or by people who think we’re a part of a larger universe that needs to be explored. Now, nobody bothers to look up,” he says. “I have students who walk out of this building and I never see them look at the sky. And that’s because here in Los Angeles there are seven stars up there and most of them are probably airplanes.”
Spending hours in national parks after dark has also given Nordgren a unique appreciation of the spaces. Absent the usual crush of tourists, Nordgren describes staring at the gulley of the Grand Canyon from one of its overlooks as feeling like traveling back in time. He’s also been careful to avoid the nocturnal grizzly bears in Glacier National Park.
Today, Nordgren’s national parks projects are on display at the University of Wyoming, and he continues to work with park rangers on educating the public about the value of unadulterated sky. Some parks, in fact, have started using their clear skies as new tourist attractions, like Maine’s Acadia National Park, which has begun hosting an annual night sky festival.
Nordgren’s also started preparing for his next major project, which will culminate on August 21, 2017, the date of the first total solar eclipse to take place since 1979. Nordgren’s working with the national park system on a series of posters to advertise the event, as well as a book.
To see more of his work, click here.