Great Basin, Great Dark Skies


Written by Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon Society Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator/Photo by Tara Lemezis, Portland Audubon

and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.”

-Excerpt from “Poetry” by Pablo Neruda

This excerpt by Neruda so accurately captures the feeling of looking at night skies from within the Great Basin. Layers upon layers of stars, dancing across the sky and through space. Astral calendars and maps, guiding humans and wildlife since time immemorial.

Unfortunately, light pollution is drowning out our access to dark skies and nocturnal nature (Fig. 1). Images of the U.S show that most of the eastern U.S. experiences some amount of light pollution. Moving west through the central U.S., the points of light become smaller, giving the appearance of largely “unfettered” dark skies. However, when you look at images of light pollution measuring the quality of night sky, we find that little of the U.S. experiences “truly dark” skies (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Lights of the United States. This image shows the concentration of lights on the U.S. landscape.
Figure 2. Dark Sky quality across the United States. The Bortle Scale measures skies from “truly dark” (black or dark gray areas) to “inner city” (pale gray areas). 

The Great Basin happens to be one of these areas, and we here in Harney County are lucky enough to be almost in the center of a large patch of truly dark sky (though if you look closely, you can see the effects of artificial light in Burns). Efforts to protect these dark skies are underway. One such effort is a partnership between Portland Audubon and the Burns District BLM to obtain Dark Sky Wilderness designation for the Steens Mountain Wilderness, under the International Dark Sky Association. Though this designation isn’t a legislative one, and thus lacks “teeth,” it is still an important part of recognizing the importance of dark skies and public lands for wildlife and human health.

Dark sky features, such as stars and the Milky Way, are important navigational tools for migrating birds and other wildlife. Additionally, nocturnal species developed specific circadian rhythms (patterns of light/dark) that dictate sleep, mating, flowering, migration, and other stages of diverse life cycles. When light pollution disrupts these patterns, there can be serious consequences. For example, today, lights from large cities represent the brightest point on island horizons, causing baby sea turtles to travel toward cities and away from the ocean upon hatching. In humans, prolonged exposure to artificial light has been linked to sleep disorders, obesity, and heart disease by the American Medical Association. 

What can you do to support dark skies? Changing light bulbs to “warm light” LED bulbs is a great start. These LED bulbs don’t include light in the blue spectrum and are therefore better for humans, wildlife, and mitigating light pollution. Another important step you can take is turning off unnecessary nighttime lighting, including but not limited to porch lights and other outdoor lighting. You can also support Lights Out programs in your area. For more information about what you can do to support human and wildlife health, follow the link to Portland Audubon’s Light’s Out page

Image of the Bortle Scale and Dark Sky Quality. Burns, OR is in the “green” column, while the Steens are in the far right “black” column. What do your dark skies look like?
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