Mojave Trails National Monument Could Become A Dark Sky Sanctuary
Growing up in Orange County, Stacey Yoon had never really seen the Milky Way. So when she saw a Facebook ad for an internship where she'd be measuring darkness in the middle of the Mojave Desert, she jumped on it.
"Being in the desert, it just clears your mind a lot," Yoon, a recent graduate of University of California Irvine, said. "It feels like you're part of something way bigger."
Yoon got the internship. She and fellow interns spent one night a month over the past year collecting data to support a potential designation of Mojave Trails National Monument as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. The designation, one of five categories certified by the International Dark-Sky Association, is reserved for places that are remote, open to the public and have "exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights."
The data collected by the interns at 16 different sites shows that the national monument — 1.6 million acres along Route 66 bordered by the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park — is, indeed, very dark. They used an instrument called a sky quality meter that measures the brightness of the night sky in magnitudes per square arcsecond.
Many of the sites measured above the threshold required for dark sky sanctuary status, as did the average of all 16 sites. Iron Mountain, in the southern part of the monument, measured the darkest.
Who Cares About Dark Skies?
As population centers grow, fewer and fewer stars are visible to the naked eye, even in once-remote protected areas like Joshua Tree National Park. According to the International Dark-Sky Association, light pollution is increasing twice as fast as the global population.
That's not only bad for backyard astronomers and amateur astrophotographers, said Mary Cook-Rhyne, education coordinator for the Mojave Desert Land Trust — it's also bad for wildlife like the kit fox, which depend on dark skies to hunt and navigate, and for night-blooming flowers and the bats and insects that pollinate them.
But Cook-Rhyne says light pollution is actually the easiest kind of pollution for individuals and communities to fix.
"Just by shielding their lights, reducing the wattage of the lights," she said.
There are just 15 certified dark sky sanctuaries in the world, eight of them in the U.S. The nearest ones are at Massacre Rim in Nevada, in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, and Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah.
The data collected in Mojave Trails now gets turned over to the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the park, for it to consider seeking dark sky certification as part of its management plan. The process could take up to three years, said Noelle Glines-Bovio, manager of Mojave Trails National Monument.
Achieving dark sky sanctuary status, or a lesser designation like dark sky "reserve" or dark sky "park," wouldn't necessarily save the monument from encroaching light from nearby population centers. But it would help inform its management, including, for example, the lighting of potential future campgrounds. (There's currently just one developed campground in the monument.)
WISDOM Brings Budding Women Scientists Into The Wild
Yoon and the other interns who collected the data were part of the Women In Science Discovering Our Mojave (WISDOM) internship program run by the Mojave National Land Trust. The six-month internship is designed to support women from underserved communities in science, technology, engineering and math, and to provide them with field research opportunities.
Besides the dark sky study, WISDOM interns have helped survey birds, bighorn sheep and tamarisk beetles.
Yoon said she loved the long truck rides through the monument with her research partner, watching shooting stars during the Perseids and sharing the silence with desert critters. "Seeing all the little plants and the kit foxes and kangaroo rats that run around, it just seems very grounding to me," she said.
Yoon's internship in the desert is over and she's back to working in front of a computer. But the experience whetted her appetite for field research.
"I would, just like, take time off my job to do stuff like this," she said.
The next dark place she wants to study: Antarctica.