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NatureSpeak Articles

Lighting the Way: Reclaiming Our Night Sky

Previous NatureSpeak columns have discussed the problem of light pollution and outlined some solutions. In this column and the next, I will examine light pollution in our local environment – within the municipality of Whistler.

Light pollution threatens our connection with the natural world by robbing us of the night sky. For the first time in history, the majority of humans alive cannot see the full glory of the stars because of the artificial light pouring from our cities. This unnatural light may have a significant – and as yet largely unstudied – effect on human health and well-being, not to mention on nocturnal animals and insects, and in turn, the biosphere as a whole. The loss of this part of nature desensitizes us to other damage to the environment.

There are other reasons why we should care about light pollution:

• Most light pollution is caused by misdirected light, that is, light that does not illuminate the intended target. This wasted light means wasted energy and money. Wasted energy means more hydroelectric dams and unnecessary CO 2emissions from fossil fuel generation stations;

• Misdirected light is often noticeable in the form of glare. Glare hinders our vision, reduces visibility and can increase nighttime travel hazards. Glare reduces effective illumination by making our eyes less sensitive to light and can create blind spots and dark areas. Glare creates a disagreeable and cluttered night environment;

• Light trespass is a misdirected light that spills unwanted across property lines. Unpleasant and annoying, the most obvious example is the neighbour’s light that shines in your bedroom window. Less obvious, but perhaps more important, is the effect of the light that pours unnecessarily from homes, businesses and streetlights and spoils our enjoyment of the night environment.

The good news about light pollution is that it can be easily mitigated at relatively low cost. Since poorly shielded fixtures that spew light directly into the sky cause most light pollution (for instance, 50 per cent-75 per cent of sky glow), the installation of inexpensive shields can create a significant improvement. (The design of some fixtures makes retrofitting with shields impractical and the remedy – replacement – will be more expensive). The two most annoying forms of light pollution – glare and light trespass – can be virtually eliminated with good shielding with no loss of illumination.

To go beyond a 50 per cent-75 per cent improvement, light levels have to be reduced. Since night lighting is often a necessity for safety and security, for instance at intersections, careful engineering must be done to ensure that sufficient illumination is provided. This is not an impossible task and good fixture design can help. For instance, if glare from streetlamps is reduced, then lamp wattage can also be reduced, with no net change in the effective illumination level. The City of Calgary has recently commenced a major streetlight retrofit program with precisely this objective: improving shielding while reducing wattage with the capital costs to be recovered from energy savings.

Other measures, such as the use of timers and motion sensors, can be utilized so that the same amount of light is available but only when necessary, thereby reducing waste.

Finally, one can look at reducing actual illumination for selected applications. In many cases we use unnecessarily bright lights out of habit when much less light would be sufficient. For instance, many homeowners use high wattage bulbs for the coach-style lamps on the front of their homes. To the extent these lights are intended to provide illumination to see steps or find keyholes easily, or simply for decoration, much lower wattage bulbs will suffice.

The remainder of this column will be devoted to RMOW’s lighting practices. The RMOW’s public lighting clearly demonstrates a greater sensitivity to light pollution issues than many municipalities. For instance, residential street lighting (outside of the village) is kept to a minimum by lighting intersections only.

One lighting program in particular stands out: the "Whistler Streetlamp" (Photo 1) was custom designed by a manufacturer under the direction of a group of RMOW staffers led by Jan Jansen more than 10 years ago. As outlined in the photo caption, it is a superbly designed fixture incorporating features years ahead of its time. More recently, the lights installed on the Valley Trail outside of the Village (Photo 3) were selected by the RMOW Parks Design team to minimize environmental intrusion.

Unfortunately, not all RMOW lighting installations meet the same high standards. Many muni buildings, for instance, use unshielded "wall packs" (Photo 6) which blast most of their output into the sky, motorists’ eyes, and at a useless distance from the building. Shields for these wall packs (Photo 5) cost just $50-$75 each and can be installed in minutes.

While light pollution is obviously a less significant threat to the earth than, say, deforestation, it is a real and growing environmental problem. In the terminology of the Natural Step Framework adopted by the RMOW, light pollution degrades nature (System Condition 3) through energy waste and its effects on the nighttime ecosystem. In addition, it impinges on human needs (System Condition 4) by creating a barrier to appreciation for and connection with the night environment.

As such, we should address light pollution as part of Whistler’s sustainability program. The municipality’s draft environmental strategy identified a low level of light pollution as a goal and called for the development of a municipal night sky policy. While municipal staffers are sensitive to the issue there has been no development of formal policy in the area.

We should consider taking the following steps to improve our lighting practices:

• Explicitly target lighting as an item for improvement in the "Whistler. It’s Our Nature" initiative;

• Take steps through shielding and retrofitting to eliminate glare and light trespass from RMOW lights;

• Develop a municipal policy on light pollution to cover public, commercial and residential lighting;

• Encourage business and residential owners to take voluntary steps by providing good advice and guidelines on lighting;

• Consider adopting anti-light pollution bylaws if above steps are ineffective.

Next week, we’ll look at residential and commercial lighting.

Web sites of the Week:

Sky and Telescope Magazine —

International Dark-Sky Association —

Royal Astronomical Society of Canada —

Upcoming Events:

Saturday, May 11th — Arbor Day. Join the Whistler Naturalists between 9 a.m. and noon as we help reforest the north gravel pit in the Emerald Forest. We’ll meet at the gravel pit. It’s likely best to park on the shoulder of West Side Road — look for the sign between Rainbow Trail and Alpine Meadows. Definitely bring gloves and, if possible, a trowel, shovel, or mattock. Post-planting family BBQ at Edgewater (bring your own cup). Call Bob Brett for details.

Wednesday, May 15th — Nature Walk. Meet at 7 p.m. at the Lost Lake warming hut (park at Lost Lake). Free for members; $2 for non-members. Call Mitch Sulkers for more information.

Written by: Don Brett


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