Tyler Nordgren, viewed from behind, Top image: Nordgren watches the Milky Way rise at Big Bend National Park.

Nordgren watches the Milky Way rise at Big Bend National Park. (Photo provided)

Alum Is an Evangelist for the Wonders of National Parks—‘After Dark’

Stories You May Like

‘Social Justice Comedian’ Mines Jokes both Highbrow and Low

Researchers Aim for More Protective Women’s Ice Hockey Gear

Mother-Daughter Alums Share a Vocation—Forging a Special Bond

Astronomer and artist Tyler Nordgren, PhD ’97, trains rangers to lead stargazing programs and immortalizes parks in 1930s-style travel posters

“Half the park is after dark.” Astronomer and artist Tyler Nordgren, PhD ’97, coined that neatly rhyming catchphrase to promote his passion project: raising awareness about the nighttime allure of America’s national parks.

While millions worldwide have enjoyed the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Denali, Everglades, Death Valley, and other U.S. treasures during the day, Nordgren aims to spread the word about the wonders that emerge after the sun goes down.

“It's not just stargazing,” says Nordgren. “It's nocturnal species. It's the landscape. It's the beauty of the moon, going on moonlight hikes. It's Native American culture—all the amazing stories about what you see in the sky.”

Tyler Nordgren poses next to a stone monument in Antarctica
Nordgren on a recent trip to Antarctica, where he and his shipmates had hoped to view a total solar eclipse. "Unfortunately, we got clouded out," he says, "but we did manage to do stargazing one night." (Photo provided.)

But as an astronomer, viewing the night sky is close to Nordgren’s heart. And as he explains, national parks—which inherently lack major commercial or residential development—offer rare respites from the light pollution that bedevils amateur stargazers and professional astronomers alike. And it’s getting worse.

“Communities have been converting their streetlights from 1950s halogen bulbs to LEDs, which are much more energy efficient, so you can get a lot more light for the same amount of electricity,” Nordgren notes. “We’re seeing this all around the country—and in fact, cities all over the world have become much brighter.”

For the past decade and a half, Nordgren has been using both his scientific acumen and his artistic skills to further his mission. While on the faculty at California’s University of Redlands, he spent a 2007 sabbatical with the National Park Service, visiting more than a dozen parks and training rangers to conduct night sky programs.

Cities all over the world have become much brighter.

“One of the things that really struck me was that in places like Arches National Park, the photographers would be shoulder to shoulder right before sunset,” he recalls. “And the minute the sun went down, they'd all go away—but that's when the Milky Way and the stars come out.”

A stellar twist on the ‘artist in residence’

Although COVID-19 has disrupted Nordgren’s ongoing work training park rangers, last summer he was chosen to serve as the Grand Canyon’s first-ever astronomer-in-residence, offering educational programs to some of the many visitors who’ve been flocking to national parks during the pandemic for socially distanced vacations. While it was a one-time appointment, he’s aiming to follow it up with similar gigs at other parks.

The cover of "Stars Above, Earth Below"
Nordgren penned a guide to stargazing in the parks.

A fan of outdoor pursuits since his childhood in Oregon and Alaska, Nordgren earned an undergrad degree in physics from Reed College.

He spent the summer before his senior year as an intern on the Hill—conducting research on pulsars under the late Yervant Terzian, then chairman of astronomy, who encouraged him to apply to Cornell for grad school.

Nordgren’s doctoral research brought him to such legendary facilities as Australia’s Parkes Observatory, New Mexico’s Very Large Array, and Puerto Rico’s now-decommissioned Arecibo Observatory, then administered by Cornell.

Stories You May Like

‘Social Justice Comedian’ Mines Jokes both Highbrow and Low

Researchers Aim for More Protective Women’s Ice Hockey Gear

The many weekends he spent hiking in the mountains and desert near Flagstaff, Arizona, during his time as a postdoc with the U.S. Naval Observatory was—unbeknownst to him—perfect training for his eventual residency at the Grand Canyon.

A nod to vintage travel posters

In addition to his astronomy research and teaching, Nordgren has long been an artist; as a grad student, he contributed editorial cartoons to the Daily Sun and Ithaca Journal.

His artwork has become a central part of his campaign to promote national parks overall and the night skies in particular: he has created numerous travel posters—modeled after 1930s lithographs of iconic American locales that were funded through the Works Progress Administration—featuring parks from Acadia to Zion, plus some other themes.

“I keep the design work simple, to look very similar to those old lithographs,” Nordgren says of the posters, which are sold on his website and in park gift shops. “In the midst of the Depression, they got people to go out and see the beauty of the national parks.”

Three travel posters depicting (from left) Taughannock Falls State Park, viewing the Milky Way at the Grand Canyon, and the August 2017 solar eclipse.
Nordgren's artwork includes posters showcasing New York State parks, the night sky at national parks, and the 2017 solar eclipse. (Images provided)

Nordgren’s poster business took off during the August 2017 solar eclipse, for which he created some 30 designs customized for communities and parks along its path. When he got home after viewing it, some 2,000 orders had piled up—and they kept pouring in.

“It took me weeks to fill them,” he says. “Thank goodness I was a professor and it was summer vacation.”

He decided to retire early from academia and pursue his art full time; he and his wife (fellow astronomy alum Julie Rathbun, PhD ’00) relocated back to Ithaca, where he runs his poster operation from home.

Recently, he’s been working on a series showcasing how another Depression-era program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, enabled the improvement of such New York State parks as Buttermilk Falls, Treman, Watkins Glen, Taughannock Falls, and Fillmore Glen, with more designs to come.

“Back in the 1930s, that program built the trails, bridges, gazebos, and pavilions that we all love,” Nordgren says. “The idea is to highlight what the CCC did, that we've been enjoying for 100 years—and maybe, that will help build the case for a new program to last us another 100 years.”

Top image: Nordgren watches the Milky Way rise at Big Bend National Park. (Photo provided)

Published January 20, 2022


  1. Karen Trevino


Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other stories You may like