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Q&A with DarkSky Advocate DeAnn Gregory from Kansas City, USA

DeAnn Gregory, a DarkSky Advocate from Kansas City, discusses the impact of LED streetlights on wildlife and the success of efforts to tone down the color temperature of new streetlights in her city.

Each month DarkSky International features a DarkSky Advocate from the worldwide network of volunteers who are working to protect the night. This month we’re highlighting the work of DeAnn Gregory from Missouri, U.S.

This month, we sat down for a Q&A with DeAnn Gregory from Kansas City, Missouri, U.S. We chatted with her about what set her on the path to becoming a DarkSky Advocate, her passion for wildlife, and her future plans for dark-sky conservation in Kansas City. Meet DeAnn below!

Q: What got you interested in protecting dark skies? How long have you been advocating for dark sky conservation?

A: In the Fall of 2020, I led a group from Sierra Club Missouri Chapter to find out whether our city was going to retrofit streetlights to improve efficiency. We found out they were planning to do this, and we wanted to know the impacts on urban wildlife. Most large cities retrofitted to LED streetlights around 2015 or so, and a lot of these “early adopters” made the same mistakes — harsh glare and overlighting. Since Kansas City is a “late adopter,” we asked them to use light pollution mitigation strategies now already widely adopted by other cities.  

Kansas City is geographically a large city with lots of urban wildlife. I’ve always been really interested in wildlife vision and the fascinating variations of different species. Some of these are familiar to us, like the reflective structures that make the eyes of Virginia opossum and some mammals appear to glow at night (the tapetum lucidum). Some species, like white-tailed deer, have large eyes to help them see in low light conditions.  There are so many variations, and they are truly amazing. 

Q: Can you tell us about dark skies in Kansas City?

A: I’ve taken some measurements on a Sky Quality Meter. Converting these to the Bortle Scale from 1, darkest skies, to 9, most light-polluted sky, Kansas City is a 9. We are also in the top ten most dangerous cities in the U.S. for migrating birds. Our city is just beginning its conversion to LEDs, and the broad spectrum light will cause even more skyglow.  Skyglow is like a magnet that pulls migrating birds off-course into the city where cats, buildings, and communications towers take their grisly toll. Missouri is located in a major migratory flyway. The streetlight retrofit was a huge opportunity to help birds, reduce our carbon footprint and raise the bar for Missouri tourism.  

Q: Speaking of Kansas City, you recently had a big win there! Can you tell us about it?

A: Our Sierra Club Missouri Chapter led a community effort with letter writing, networking with other civic groups, and contacting city officials.  In February 2022, Kansas City announced its decision to tone down the color temperature of all new streetlights to 3000 Kelvin. This decision will have positive long-term impacts.  The American Medical Association recommends 3000 Kelvin (K) or below, which has less blue light, to benefit human health and mitigate harmful environmental impacts. The blue light in high-Kelvin lights contributes to “disability glare” and “discomfort glare” that make it harder to see at night, especially for senior citizens. 

Q: What resources have been most effective in your work?

A: Working with an experienced team of local activists was key, and we asked a lot of questions.   I learned a lot from podcasts like “Meet Star Gazers.”  (You can listen to the episode with DeAnn here.) Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting by Travis Longcore & Catherine Rich was our North Star.  Other advocates, DarkSky Missouri chapter, the experts at DarkSky International, and a few professional engineers with lots of credentials in this field helped interpret specifications and sift through contradictory assertions. 

 Q: What are your future plans for dark sky conservation?

A: Currently, I’m serving with other DarkSky Advocates on a team working for St. Louis LED streetlights to meet AMA recommendations. I’m helping with promotions for the Missouri Dark Skies September Conference. I’m also enjoying being part of the DarkSky Advocate Network. At a recent meeting, we learned about Lights Out Texas and Lights Out Colorado, two very inspirational projects to help migratory birds. It’s so exciting to be part of this.

Q: What would you like other dark sky advocates to know?

A: With LED outdoor lighting, less is more.  The human eye sees better with low levels of LED lighting compared to higher levels of the legacy lighting being replaced (because of the light spectrum). Most people can’t distinguish when LED lighting is dimmed to 50% or even to 25%. Conversely, overlighting from LEDs can be temporarily blinding, like having someone shine a flashlight in your face when your eyes are adapted to the dark. We don’t want that effect with outdoor lighting. There are lots of well-designed LED products on the market today and lots of great examples of cities using the best products. 

One of the primary goals of our advocacy project was for resident stakeholder engagement in the Kansas City, Missouri, streetlight decision.  Cities that coordinate robust engagement with residents, like Salt Lake City, Utah,  seem to always choose great lighting.

Q: What is your favorite part about the night?

A: Listening to the calls of migrating geese high in the sky on a crisp moonlit night is my favorite thing. I also have an acoustic bat meter that allows me to listen to the high-frequency echolocation of foraging bats and identify them. I have a lot of fireflies in my yard, and I never get tired of watching them. I see the beauty of it. 

Q: What is your biggest challenge working in dark sky conservation?

A: For some, lighting gives a sense of security, and that’s important to understand. But, LED streetlights aren’t a newly invented wheel to reduce crime. It’s an urban myth that more light makes us safer, so there’s more work to be done. One good introduction to the topic, and one of the best websites I’ve found, is:

Q: What is your favorite thing to tell people during dark sky events?

A: Every species on Earth is sensitive to light. All animals — vertebrates, invertebrates, even single-celled organisms, have an internal clock. The quality and quantity of light and the timing of when that light strikes the photosensors in our eyes reset the clock to its 24-hour cycle. The sleep hormone melatonin is an antioxidant that repairs damage to our cells while we sleep. 

Daily, lunar and seasonal cycles also signal animal behaviors. As day length shortens, mammals put on their winter coat and store up fat or migrate to a warmer place. In Winter, melatonin is secreted for more hours per day because the nights are longer, and this signals the time of year. The groundhog isn’t predicting the weather. He’s emerging from his den because of hormones and looking for the girl groundhog. Light pollution can cause animals to miss these important cues, causing cascading impacts, like disrupting the balance of predator/prey populations.

Q: What is the coolest thing you have ever done?

A: Marrying my husband. Also, martial arts in my 20s and 30s helped me face some dragons within.

Q: Any dark sky jokes to share?

A: Some advocates got together to talk about using social media to educate folks about light pollution. 

They decided they would need an “Al-Gore-rhythm.”

Q: How about a funny story that happened in the dark?

A: This year, I’ve camped a few nights out on the prairie. I wanted to get some sky-quality data points for the Globe at Night citizen science project. On the first camping trip, the temperature really dropped. I was cold but enjoyed listening to a coyote pack in the distance. On the second trip, there had been a mountain lion spotted one county over.  I didn’t sleep much that night either. So far, I’ve only been brave enough to stick the instrument outside the tent, record my data, and then lay awake all night. These prairies were about a 4.5 on the Bortle Scale. Still, with this dedication – it’s only a matter of time before I see the Milky Way again. 

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

A: I’d like to thank the DarkSky Advocate Network for their work in preserving the beautiful night sky.

Additional information on DeAnn’s work in Kansas City:

Learn more about DeAnn by checking out her iNaturalist account, where she documents urban bird and wildlife observations as well as bat rescues. You can learn more about the DarkSky Advocate Network here.