DRIFTLESS - By the time readers see this article, the shortest day and longest night of 2020 will have come and gone. What this means is that some of the darkest days of the year are behind us.
Of course, that date – Winter Solstice 2020 – is also the official kickoff of winter, so we’re not out of the woods yet, but that’s where the holiday celebrations come in to help us all bring light and good cheer back into the picture. Usually, it isn’t until about the beginning of February when you can really start to notice the days getting longer.
Two scientists gathered virtually on Saturday, Dec. 19 to discuss all the exciting celestial happenings, and educate participants about the many benefits of protecting dark skies. On a map of ‘light pollution’ taken from space, the Driftless Region really stood out as an area with lots of dark sky in the night, something the scientists urge everyone to appreciate and protect.
“The planet is losing dark skies at the rate of about two percent per year,” International Dark Sky Ambassador Lynda Schweikert explained. “The replacement of so many bulbs with LEDs has had a huge impact on this as they are much brighter than the old incandescent bulbs.”
Schweikert explained that loss of dark skies at night has had an impact on many species of wildlife that has been scientifically documented. Those species include pollinators, amphibians, fish and more.
Schweikert discussed ways that citizens can remedy the loss of dark skies and reduce the impacts to wildlife.
“Top of the list of remedies to loss of dark skies is to turn off your lights,” Schweikert said. “If you don’t want to turn them off at night, then consider a motion detector light or replace your light with a fixture that is more shielded.”
Schweikert directed people interested in learning more about light pollution, and light fixtures that help to mitigate it to the International Dark Sky website at https://www.darksky.org.
Another way that she suggests to mitigate the effects of yard lights on dark skies is to choose bulbs for outdoor fixtures that are warmer versus cooler.
“When thinking about what color bulb to choose for an outdoor fixture, think about mimicking the colors that nature chooses for sunsets – orange and the warmer tones,” Schweikert said. “Those color spectrums will really decrease the impacts of nighttime light for wildlife.”
Last, Schweikert said that some communities have enacted dark sky ordinances. Examples of ordinances can be found on the dark sky website.
John Heasley was the second scientist to share his passion for stargazing and dark skies with the group. Heasley is the well-known author of the online publication ‘Driftless Stargazing,’ and a Solar System and Dark Sky Ambassador.
Heasley kicked off his discussion with an explanation of the winter solstice, which occurred at 4:02 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 21. This is when the sun takes its lowest path across the sky in the northern hemisphere.
“I think of the winter solstice as the time when time is slowing down,” Heasley said. “It is the time of year when the sun rises and sets furthest to the south, and exhibits the slowest change in place and time.”
Heasley explained that the word ‘solstice’ comes from ‘sol’ (sun) and ‘sisto’ (stand still).
Heasley also discussed the ‘Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn,’ which took place December 20-22. He said that the last time such a celestial event had been so visible in the sky was in the year 1226.
Heasley said that it is not necessary to have a bunch of expensive equipment to enjoy what the night sky has to offer, nor is it necessary to embark on a course of study prior to heading out.
“It takes about 15-20 minutes after you get outside for your eyes to become adapted to the dark,” Heasley explained. “So just put on some warm clothes, take a blanket, and find a place where it is nice and dark, and that’s about all you really need.”
Heasley said that if you already own binoculars or a spotting scope, these tools can help you to see even more than you can with the naked eye. These devices, he said, can gather 10-100 times more light than your eyes alone. He said when using them, be “steady and comfortable.” He said “the longer you look, the more you’ll see.”
Heasley said that stargazers will also be treated to a full moon – the Yule Full Moon – on December 29. He said to look for it in the northeast about the time that the sun is setting in the southwest.
Heasley ended his presentation by sharing his favorite yuletide poem, ‘Welcome Yule,’ by poet Susan Cooper:
So the Shortest Day came and the year died
Everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakes in the sleeping land;
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year,Welcome Yule!