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Bridging the gap between East and West Texas, I-35's brightly lit corridors are familiar to nearly every person living in Central Texas and beyond. The highway is so bright that all the way from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico up through Dallas and everything west of the highway can be seen from space.
This pathway between a light-polluted sky and the stars is called "The Edge of Night."
That's because I-35 segments the sections: to the west, the night sky is mostly dark outside of cities, but to the east, the skies gleam all night and day, taking the place of the stars. Austin sits along the edge of night, centrally situated, so you can't see the stars from most areas of the city.
(Tip: click #4 on the dark sky map)
The harm of light pollution
A night sky with no stars is caused by the well-known phenomenon called light pollution, which is the brightening of the sky caused by streetlights and other man-made light sources. According to Starry Sky Austin Director Amy Jackson, light pollution causes more harm than just hiding constellations.
"Some people will never see our Milky Way galaxy and it's crazy to me, because ... that's like a birthright, we should be able to see our Milky Way galaxy and not have to travel far to see it," Jackson said. "We should be able to see our stars in the sky. That's an important issue but there's so many other ones. It's definitely a misconception that's propagated by all kinds of people that it's safer when we light up the night."
Instead of using directional light pointed toward the ground, most light bulbs cause light scatter, spreading light in all directions, which creates a glare that actually makes it harder to see. Glare makes the lit-up areas look brighter and the unlit areas are made to look darker by contrast, causing safety issues and skyglow.
Street lights create a lot of glare, and the transition to LED lights has created even more. LED lights contain a more blue light, making the light look whiter and brighter. This glare can temporarily blind you if it's too bright—like when someone's LED headlights are pointed just so at your rearview mirror.
"We just don't think about that light hurting us, we don't think about light blinding us," said Cindy Luongo Cassidy, director of the Texas Chapter of the International Dark Sky Association.
Aside from traffic issues, excess blue light disrupts our circadian rhythm, or sleep cycle, and the ecosystems of plants and animals all around us. Think about the blue light your phone and computer emit, but on a much larger scale.
Blue light affects our production of melatonin—which disrupts our sleep patterns and causes fatigue and strain—but according to Jackson, it causes ecological issues like upsetting bird migratory patterns, nocturnal animals and plant life.
"Lights are telling us and our bodies to stay awake and so now we have our screens and we have our cell phones and we're like 'okay, you should stay awake,' you're like 'no, I need to go to sleep,'" Jackson said. "It messes with our circadian rhythms and we start to have a decreased immune system so we're more prone to illness."
In extreme cases, Cassidy said decreased melatonin can contribute to certain types of cancer because melatonin inhibits the production of cancerous cells. Several studies have stated the same thing, also linking cancer to lack of sleep.
"It really messes up the life on this planet," Cassidy said. "We may not see it right away but it'll say, cause trees to be more susceptible to disease, it causes our cancers to keep growing rather than melatonin being there just to stop it. It's detrimental to us. We hold up the Barton Springs salamander and say we've got to protect this endangered species and yet, artificial light is detrimental to it."
Aside from the health issues and ecological damage, using so much electricity is expensive, wasteful and doesn't even do much to protect us, Cassidy said. In fact, studies have shown that many types of crime, like larceny and theft, are more likely to occur in the daytime.
Advocating for starry nights
Attempting to reduce light pollution, places like Dripping Springs became classified as an International Dark Sky Community, meaning the city is dedicated to "preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of quality lighting policies."
In order to qualify, cities must make a few minor changes: shield all light fixtures so light is not wasted on the sky, control light wavelength and temperatures (i.e. control blue light) and consistently regulate the emission of light into the sky.
Several other Texas cities have shown interest in becoming dark sky communities like Bee Cave, Lago Vista and Inks Lake. Organizations like Travis County Friends of the Night Sky and Hill Country Alliance have advocated for legislation that would limit light trespass and reduce glare, but due to a bill that was passed during the last legislative session Texas cities can no longer become dark sky cities.
HB 2439 went into effect on Sept. 1, 2019, and restricts the government from regulating local building materials used in construction. The Texas Association of Builders Vice President Ned Muñoz said that while current dark sky communities were exempted, keeping new dark sky communities from emerging was an unintended consequence of the bill.
"In order to be (a dark sky community) you had to already have the ordinances in effect," Muñoz said. "It was unintentionally only applied to ordinances that had already been certified."
Now, Muñoz said he is working with Scenic Texas and other organizations to rectify the problem. The idea is to allow ordinances that regulate outdoor lighting for the purpose of reducing light pollution to be adopted by cities, while simultaneously being exempt from the current bill.
"The way we would try to fix this is to say not only are dark sky certified communities exempted, but we want to exempt cities that have expressed an intent to become a dark sky community and are mandating those International Dark Sky Association guidelines," Muñoz said.
Muñoz said they are trying to rectify the issue this legislative session.
Austin is still a long way from being able to see its night sky clearly, so in the meantime, Jackson recommends heading west if you want to stargaze. However, there are places in and around Austin where you can find some darkness.
"Luckily, Austin has a lot of parks, in Travis County there are parks you can go to, and we have our state parks system," Jackson said. "Enchanted Rock is a dark sky park, South Llano River State Park is a dark sky park, and those are darker than the ones in town like McKinney Falls."
You can view a full list of dark sky areas in Texas here.
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17 years and three medals later, Osterman's last ride with USA softball is over. What's next for Cat?
Nearly two decades after her debut with the University of Texas and 17 years after her first Olympic gold, softball icon Cat Osterman stepped off the Olympic pitcher's mound for the last time with a silver medal to take back home.
Osterman, a three-time Olympian who has been called the "Michael Jordan of softball," will officially retire from the international realm at 38 after a decorated career that included Olympic golds, years of retirement and plenty of adversity—from a worldwide pandemic to dashed gold-medal dreams.
Osterman and her crew left Tokyo on a bittersweet note on Tuesday with a silver medal in hand.
Osterman with Team USA in 2008. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
Osterman in the final in 2021. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
After a year of sparse in-person training and over a decadelong hiatus, Team USA and Osterman flew to the finals. In five games, the team beat Italy (2-0), Canada (1-0), Mexico (2-0), Australia (2-1), and Japan (2-1).
Deja vu struck in the final match. On one side, Osterman and fellow 2008 Olympic teammate Monica Abbott took the mound; on the other was the 39-year-old Yukiko Ueno, a familiar foe who helped the team beat Team USA last go-round.
"Just like 13 years ago," Ueno said in a press conference, "we were facing each other in the final."
Ueno, who had lost hopes at gold to Osterman in '04, outpitched her longtime opponent with six scoreless innings as Team USA was held to just three hits. The same team that squandered their gold-medal hopes 13 years before had done it once again.
Your Tokyo 2020 Olympic Silver Medalists 🇺🇸#TokyoOlympics | @TeamUSA pic.twitter.com/MOMNOedHUd
— USA Softball Women's National Team 🇺🇸 (@USASoftballWNT) July 27, 2021
"There's a little bit of disappointment in not bringing home the gold since that's the eye on the prize when you go over there and you know you have a shot at it," Osterman told Austonia. "But more than anything, I'm very proud of the way our team handled everything that was part of this journey and not just the six games."
It's that very loss at the 2008 Olympics that partially motivated Osterman to get back on the mound. She officially put down the glove in 2015 after six seasons with the USSSA Pride, took time with family and began coaching at Texas State University.
Osterman helped ace Randi Rupp to greatness while a coach at Texas State University. (Active Voice Health/Twitter)
She thought her Olympic endeavors were well over—until talks of reinstating softball into the Games reentered the conversation.
"It wasn't until 2016 or 2017, that it ever crossed my mind to possibly put the USA uniform on again," Osterman said. "After the World Championships in 2010, I walked away, and I thought that my career on the international stage was done. So this was a pleasant kind of new opportunity."
Three years after facing any competition, Osterman was on the field once more with world-class athletes. Some, like Osterman and Abbott, had been playing together long enough to form a formidable "Fire and Ice" duo on the mound. Others had just graduated college.
Osterman said playing with a younger generation of athletes was one of the most rewarding aspects of this year's Games.
"It can be very different when you have 24- and 38-year-olds on the same field," Osterman said. "The adversity put us in some challenging positions and we came through with flying colors. And this group will forever be special just because what we had to go through is so different."
While on the mound, Osterman's job was to give the team a calm start. Off of the field, she felt her role had much of the same effect: she knew that new Olympic feeling, and she served as a deep breath to her first-time teammates.
"There's no words to explain how nervous and excited you get knowing that the whole world can be watching," Osterman. "I think using those emotions and figuring out how to get all our butterflies lined up and going in the right direction, so that way we were all moving together, was kind of my role outside of pitching."
We've heard her retire once before, but this time Osterman said she's gone for good—even from coaching. After her final time with Team USA on Sept. 27, she plans on returning to Austin, where she'll look to work for a nonprofit.
A gold and two silvers will have to do for one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. softball history.
"To be able to say you're a three-time Olympic medalist is a pretty special deal, right?" Osterman. "I played for a long time. But those are the pinnacle, in my mind, and kind of what elicits the dream to keep playing."
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Hospitals are facing a "significant" increase in admissions of pregnant women due to COVID-19 complications, Austin-Travis County health officials say, revealing what could be a long-term side effect of the virus.
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes met with three maternal medicine specialists on Monday morning to warn of yet another COVID-19 Delta variant concern: severe cases of the disease affecting unvaccinated mothers-to-be.
The doctors said unvaccinated pregnant women face an increased risk of preterm births, long-term effects, preeclampsia, ICU stays, stillbirths, being put on life support and even death if they are unvaccinated.
"We are really concerned that we are not getting that population of folks to hear this message of the safety of vaccines, so today we're assembled, one and all to say, wear a mask and please get vaccinated," Walkes said. "Vaccinations are the way to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations and death."
Medical Director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at St. David's Women's Center of Texas Dr. Kimberly DeStefano said 95% of pregnant women admitted with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, stressing that all pregnant and lactating women should get the vaccine not only to protect themselves but to protect their babies from infection, which can be passed through breastmilk or birth.
"We know that the earlier in pregnancy you are vaccinated, the more antibodies are present at the time of birth for the infant," DeStefano said. "This is something that's very important, both during the pregnancy and postpartum."
Catching COVID-19 while pregnant can cause adverse effects on the baby, particularly because it increases the risk of preterm births. Baylor Scott & White Maternal Obstetrics Chief of Maternal Medicine Dr. Jessica Ehrig, said that preterm births are one of the "biggest impacts" on childhood development.
"We know that (preterm births) can have long-term effects depending on how early a baby's born," Ehrig said. "It increases the risk for long term respiratory issues, for blindness sometimes (and) for neurologic development delays."
Since mid-July, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on a steep rise that sent the city back to recommending Stage 4 guidelines. As the seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations surpassed 50 admissions, Stage 5 guidelines could be on the horizon. The city reported 54 new admissions and 546 total new cases on Friday.
Delta is more contagious than chickenpox, Walkes said, and even vaccinated individuals can catch and spread the virus without symptoms. The group of doctors asked everyone, especially pregnant women, to mask while in public as local hospitals pass the Stage 5 threshold.
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