B.C. astronomy buffs trying to curb nighttime glare
Douglas Quan, ctvbc.ca
Published Monday, December 28, 2009 8:00PM PST
Amateur astronomers are trying to persuade municipal officials in B.C.'s southern Interior to cut out nighttime glare from city lights and turn 1,700 hectares of mostly rural land into a dark-sky preserve.
If approved, the area -- nestled in the Nicola Valley between Merritt, Kamloops, Kelowna and Princeton -- would draw astronomy buffs from around the world and offer nighttime skies not unlike what Galileo would've seen in the 1600s, proponents say.
"You're separating yourself from the doldrums of life, going out there and reconnecting with the universe from which we came," said Paul Greenhalgh, president of the Fraser Valley Astronomers Society.
"For me, it's a purging."
An unfettered view of the stars and planets is just one of many benefits of curbing light pollution, advocates told ctvbc.ca. It also reduces the number of migratory birds that get disoriented from city lights and crash into buildings; cuts back on energy use; and results in a more restful sleep for humans.
Though reducing light pollution doesn't have the same urgency as reducing carbon emissions, there is evidence municipal officials in North America are listening.
The City of Toronto recently passed mandatory building standards to reduce nighttime glare.
And a city supervisor in San Francisco is set to begin hearings on a proposal to force downtown buildings to shut off their interior lights at night.
Some B.C. municipalities have light restrictions in place, but it's been more of a piecemeal approach, said Mark Eburne, chair of light pollution abatement for the Vancouver branch of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
"Most cities have a noise bylaw, not many have a light pollution bylaw," he said.
This year, Eburne -- armed with a power-point presentation -- started travelling to municipal council meetings to educate officials on the topic.
His key message: "Being green is also being dark at night."
Advocates of a dark-sky preserve in the Nicola Valley say astronomers from as far as Australia and Africa have visited the region's high plateaus.
"This area that I speak of is pristine and it is our wish to keep it that way," Greenhalgh wrote in a recent letter to Harry Lali, the MLA who represents the region.
Advocates stress that they are not anti-development. They just want municipalities to make sure that all new developments and street lights be equipped with full cut-off light fixtures that direct light downward.
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has laid out criteria for what constitutes a dark-sky preserve, but essentially there should be no artificial lighting and little or no sky glow visible from within the area.
The society has recognized nine dark-sky preserves across the country: four in Ontario; two in Alberta; two in New Brunswick; and one in Saskatchewan.
A representative for Lali said Lali doesn't yet have a stance on a dark-sky preserve in B.C.'s southern Interior.
Susan Roline, the mayor of Merritt, said the idea is feasible, but all stakeholders will need to be consulted. She said the area is currently used for mining exploration, logging operations and ranching.
Roline agreed though that shining lights up at the sky is "not a necessity."
Light pollution's other effects
Bird enthusiasts have also become major light pollution-reduction advocates.
Turns out, migratory birds are often drawn to the bright lights emanating from downtown office buildings, monuments and broadcast towers, and confuse the lights with the moon and stars they use to navigate.
Birds will flutter in the light and drop from exhaustion, or crash into the structures, experts say.
Some birds might survive the night but then get trapped in the urban centre during the day and get disoriented by reflections in glass structures.
Hundreds can be killed in one night at one building, according to the Fatal Light Awareness Program, a Toronto-based charity whose volunteers help rescue birds that have fallen to the ground.
"At a flick of the switch, the problem disappears," said Michael Mesure, FLAP's executive director.
There is also an emerging body of research that suggests strong correlations between light pollution and people's health.
Earlier this year, the American Medical Association adopted a resolution to support light pollution reduction efforts.
The association cited research that shows light pollution can disrupt the human circadian rhythm, suppress melatonin production, depress immune systems, and increase cancer rates.
The association also said streetlight glare can decrease nighttime visibility by constricting the pupils.
"Many older citizens are significantly affected by glare as the eye ages, leading to unsafe driving conditions," the association said.
The message is resonating with some municipalities.
The City of Toronto has adopted a bi-annual Lights Out! public awareness campaign and "bird-friendly" development guidelines.
Beginning next year, new building construction will have to adhere to new regulations as part of the city's "Green Standard." There's a ban on up-lighting exterior light fixtures and a requirement that all exterior light fixtures be shielded to prevent glare or "light trespass" onto neighbouring properties.
The rules apply to low-rise non-residential buildings, as well as mid- to high-rise residential and commercial buildings.
Meanwhile, the City of San Francisco is set to begin hearings on a proposal to deal with interior lights of buildings in their downtown core. The proposal would require downtown office buildings to either turn off their lights at night or adopt automatic lighting controls.
"If anyone visits our downtown skyline, you'll see thousands of lights turned on. It represents a huge waste of energy," said Supervisor David Chiu, who is sponsoring the motion. "We all learned as kids -- every four-year-old knows -- they have to turn off the lights."
BC Hydro offers an incentive program to municipalities to get rid of inefficient streetlights that shine light in all directions and replace them with full cut-off streetlights that direct light downward. That's what the City of Calgary did, and it now saves $1.7 million in electrical costs, according to BC Hydro.
With the exception of decorative lighting, all new City of Vancouver street lights are required to be full cut-off fixtures.
Greenhalgh and others said while these are positive steps, they want municipalities to adopt comprehensive light pollution-reduction plans that address everything from the lighting of billboards to the lighting of residential and commercial developments to so-called vanity or decorative lighting, such as rooftop lights.
"You can't stop progress, but you can manipulate it so that it works to the benefit of all those concerned," he said.