Cherry Springs Dark Sky Park

Skyglow from Marcellus Gas Well Drilling Site


July 18-22, 2009

by Gary Honis


My setup in upper field - 20" Starmaster Dob and 5" Astro-Tech Triplet Refractor for imaging:

I arrived at the park on Saturday, July 18 for the New Moon period. I set up my 5 inch Astro-Tech triplet refractor and 20 inch Starmaster. The skies were clearing out nicely as evening arrived. My plan was to image objects to the South in Sagittarius. After setting up and doing a polar alignment, I was disappointed (being kind with that description) with flickering flashes of light in the clear night sky to the Southwest. I learned that the source of the sky glow was the burn-off flame from a gas well that was being drilled about three miles from the park. You can learn more about the Marcellus Shale Gas Reserves in PA here. I was unable to image because of the glow. As clouds rolled in the orange-ish glow got worse as it reached upward from the Southwest to the Zenith! Gone are the black underbelly of clouds at Cherry Springs Dark Sky Park.

July 18, 2009 - Southwest from upper field - 15 second exposure at ISO 1600 with Canon 10D digital camera using 18mm lens:


July 19, 2009 Animation - Southwest from upper field - 15 second exposures at ISO 1600 with Canon 10D digital camera using 18mm lens:

We took a drive to the gas drilling site at night to learn more about it. While there we took these photos which were difficult to expose correctly because the glare from the gas drill burn-off flame (flaring) was so bright. It was similar to trying to photograph with the glare of the sun directly in an image.



You can see a daytime image of the gas drilling site by Curt Weinhold HERE

The burn-off flame made a great source of light (artificial Sun) for taking photographs at night without having to use a camera flash:

Below, Elliott and Tony are pointing in the direction of Cherry Springs Dark Sky Park about three miles away. Light from the gas drill burn-off flame can be seen illuminating the top of the nearby mountain range to the Northeast.

Handholding my digital camera, as I would during full daylight, I took multiple exposures to create a panorama of the burn-off flame and how it illuminates the surrounding trees and mountains. The car is preparing to turn onto the road to Conrad, with it's fishing stream alongside, running from left to right.


This photo provides an idea of how high the burn-off flame is, compared to nearby trees:

Animation created from images of burn-off flame at gas drill site near Cherry Springs. The changing shape of the burn-off flame is what causes the flickering of lights across the sky. Some Cherry Springs Dark Sky Park campers said that the flickering was noticeable INSIDE their camping tents.

Elliott McKinley took a video of the gas burn-off (flaring) with his cell phone while we were there and posted it on YouTube HERE.

Tony Donnangelo also took some photos and they are posted HERE.

Some links to videos on YouTube of gas flaring:

Youtube - Gas Flares From Space

A view of global gas flaring based on satellite observations

Blog about Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling near Hickory, Pa with completed tower

Lighting a gas flare - Night turns into Day

Update - July 27, 2009: I have been informed by Maxine Harrison, Dark Sky Director, that the company doing the drilling has been contacted about the problem. There are actually two drill sites with flaring at this time. The other flaring is at Bark Shanty in the direction of Coudersport, on a high ridge and its sky glow is blending with the Coudersport sky glow as viewed from the Dark Sky Park. The company was not aware that flaring would be a problem for the Dark Sky Park. Reports are that the drill company has stated that the drilling will be over "soon" and that they are very willing to work with the park towards a resolution. A possibility discussed was not to burn during dark of the moon or weekends with scheduled programs.

Maxine Harrison has posted an update on the "Cherry Springs Dark Sky Fund/Association" web site HERE.

PBS video on the movie "Gasland" by Josh Fox, winner of The Special Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The film documents tap water that can be ignited at the kitchen faucet, drinking water well explosions, toxic streams and ruined aquifers, polluting gas venting from drill rigs, threats to watersheds and river basins, unexplained illnesses and dying livestock.

My Thoughts:

After this experience, I made an effort to learn as much as I could about Marcellus gas well drilling in Pennsylvania. My opinion is that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has taken an approach of fast-tracking the installations of as many Marecellus gas drill sites as possible by eliminating local environmental reviews. This is evidenced by the action taken by PA Department of Environmental Protection, (D.E.P.), on April 1, 2009 that eliminated local conservation districts from the permit process of Erosion and Sedimentation and Stream and Wetlands in relation to the natural gas industry. Who knows better about local streams and wetlands than local experts that work and live in the communities affected?

Can you believe that Pennsylvania still has outdated regulations in place that allow these gas wells to be drilled as close as 200 feet from a home, or within 100 feet of streams and wetlands? Can you imagine having a natural gas flaring as near as 200 feet from your home? The gas drill we visited was also very close to a stream that is popular for trout fishing.

For astronomy, a natural gas flaring is one of the worst man-made light pollution sources as observed from space satellites at night. During my five day visit to the Cherry Springs Dark Sky Park, the nighttime gas flaring occurred for my entire stay and deep sky astro-imaging was not possible. This was at a State Park supposedly protected as a "Dark Sky Preserve" by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and designated as an International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The certification recognized Cherry Springs State Park's exceptional commitment to dark sky protection and restoration on public lands. The area is one of two natural night sky areas remaining in the Eastern United States. Has the The PA Department of Environmental Protection taken any actions to protect this Dark Sky Park from nighttime gas flarings?

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania advertises Cherry Springs Dark Sky Park as part of the "Pennsylvania Wilds tourism region, a 12-county region in northcentral and northwestern Pennsylvania offering visitors remote, authentic and rugged outdoor experiences. The region includes more than 2 million acres of public
lands, including 29 state parks, eight state forests, thousands of miles of streams and trails, and the Allegheny National Forest. Visitors to the region enjoy boundless natural beauty, unlimited recreation, and old fashioned, small town charm."

I can attest that gas drill flarings at night are not in any way an outdoor experience of "natural beauty".

Pennsylvania says this about the International Dark Sky Certification: "This designation is continued validation that this region has something special to offer to our visitors," said DCNR Secretary Michael DiBerardinis. "We are proud of what we have protected, and hope our visitors will enjoy the remoteness of the Pennsylvania Wilds and Cherry Springs State Park for many years to come."

When it comes to natural gas flarings at night and the thousands of gas drills that are expected in each of the Northern and Western counties of PA, the areas of darkest skies in the Commonwealth, I fear that what we can expect for many years to come is continued loss of our our vanishing natural night sky resource.



To My Astrophotography & Digital Imaging Home Page


Canon Digital Rebel DSLR Camera -Canon 450D - Canon XSi - Refractor Telescope