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St. Mary's students headed to largest astronomy conference in U.S.

Several St. Mary's School astronomy students want to help dim the intensity of Rogue Valley light pollution, and will start spreading the word of their mission at the world's largest astronomy conference in Seattle next year.

The students in Holly Bensel's class will travel to the American Astronomy Society meeting in January to present their abstract of "A Survey of Light Pollution in the Rogue Valley." The five-day event will be held at the Washington State Convention Center.

"Putting together this type of presentation is a good experience for them," Bensel says.

Students involved also say it's the first step in, hopefully, getting the word out about light pollution in the region, and its effects on energy consumption, safety, health and wildlife.

"It's interesting. I'm really excited," says 19-year-old senior Colin Cai.

The presentation is based on findings taken during the spring and autumn months of 2014 in areas around the Rogue Valley. Using specialized meters, they collected data from 158 points, taking readings across the county and organizing their data on a map and an Excel spreadsheet. That data can be viewed online at www.globeatnight.org.

"We watched how much glare they gave off and what type of light they were," said 15-year-old sophomore Genna Dorrell. "We had data from everywhere."

According to the students' study abstract, electric light first came to the Rogue Valley in 1894. As the population grew — 2,500 in 1895 to more than 208,000 in 2012 — so, too, did the amount of light pollution, which smothered the starlight in parts of the area. Students say this results in increased energy consumption, decreased safety for night drivers because of potential glare, and impacts to wildlife feeding and migration habits.

Based on the students' findings, the intensity varies by location. As one would expect, the urban areas typically had it worse. Parts of Medford and the Southern Oregon University campus, for example, were awash in bright light. More rural spots, such as Eagle Point and Grants Pass, had significantly less. Often, they had to sacrifice some sleep, heading out into the early-morning hours to get their readings.

"It was definitely worth it," says Meaghan Fitzpatrick, 15-year-old sophomore.

Bensel says college students from SOU and Caltech checked the findings.

Some simple steps can be taken to nip the higher levels of light in the bud, students say, including hoods over lights and lower-wattage, more efficient bulbs . The old adage of turning off lights you're not using still also applies, students say.

"It's any easy problem to solve on the local level," said 17-year-old senior Arianna Ashby.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

St. Mary's High School astronomy students from the left, Ray You, Arianna Ashby, Jason Mars, Meaghan FitzPatrick Colin Cai and Genna Dorrell are heading to largest astronomy conference in country to show presentation on light pollution. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell