Fighting light pollution, designated dark-sky preserves open the heavens to stargazers
At twilight, a great blue heron drifts over Highland Pond in the Torrance Barrens of Ontario’s Muskoka lakes district. And as darkness falls, a pair of loons announce their presence on the water with piercing cries. But the 16 members of the North York Astronomical Association camped on the rocky shoreline barely notice. They have driven 200 km north from Toronto on an April weekend to observe distant suns, galaxies and other celestial wonders from Canada’s first dark-sky preserve. They are the first stargazing group to camp at the 2,000-hectare site since the province passed legislation last year safeguarding the barrens from a further incursion of outdoor lighting that has blurred much of the night sky in most urban areas. “There are beautiful galaxies visible at this time of year,” says Toronto retailer Jim Kendrick, peering through his two-metre-long, 55-cm telescope. “But you’ve got to get away from the city to see them.”
Many nights, astronomers say, city dwellers can see fewer than 100 of the roughly 4,000 stars that should be visi-
ble to the naked eye. The problem is sky glow—the pale orange halo that hovers over large urban areas due to sprawling development and the proliferation of high-powered outdoor lighting. The situation worsened over the past decade, experts say, as service stations, fast-food oudets and car dealerships, among others, erected intensely bright lights to attract customers. “It’s absurd,” says lighting designer Nancy Clanton of Boulder, Colo., chairwoman of a committee that drafted new outdoor guidelines for the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. “These places look like operating rooms.”
One solution to excess urban light is the dark-sky preserve. Michigan authorities created the first in 1993, imposing restrictions on outdoor lights at Lake Hudson State Park, 160 km southwest of Detroit. Ontario established the second, at Torrance Barrens, last August. And in April, amateur astronomers in Abbotsford, B.C., 70 km southeast of Vancouver, successfully appealed to their city council for a dark-sky designation at a nearby park shielded from the community’s lights by a mountain. “People who live in cities have to go on
an expedition to see the night sky,” says astronomy writer Terence Dickinson of Yarker, Ont., 25 km northwest of Kingston. “They’re astounded when they see a sky full of stars.”
Increasingly, municipalities are adopting measures to protect the skies even within urban areas. In March, 1995, the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill adopted the first bylaw in Canada regulating the brightness of commercial, industrial and institutional lighting. Several communities in Ontario and British Columbia are considering similar measures. South of the border, Arizona, Maine, Connecticut, Texas and New Mexico, and more than 100 municipalities, have imposed lighting restrictions. But some politicians admit those laws are weak. In New Mexico, for example, where legislation went into effect on Jan. 1, first offences draw a warning, and subsequent violations a $25 fine. “We have powerful members who didn’t want anything passed,” says Albuquerque representative Pauline Gubbels.
Poor lighting practices, such as bathing buildings with blazing floodlights that also illuminate the sky, have become so prevalent that even some users and manufacturers are trying to tackle the problem. Clanton says the engineering society issued new guidelines for its 9,000 members last year. They recommend that security lights be no more than five times stronger than surrounding street lamps and that retail display lighting also be limited to five times that ambient level. But many commercial establishments use lights designed for sports stadiums or airport terminals that, Clanton says, are as much as 10 times more powerful than roadway illumination. “If you talk to building engineers with the national chains that use these lights,” she says, “they’ll tell you they get their instructions from the marketing department.”
The Richmond Hill bylaw controls lighting used strictly for display or marketing purposes. Enforcement officer Robert Cowie says it requires any new establishments to shield their lights to ensure that no more than two per cent of the illumination shines into the sky. And any business that closes overnight must reduce exterior illumination, in some cases by up to 75 per cent, at 11 p.m., leaving only enough light for security purposes. “We haven’t prosecuted anyone yet,” says Cowie. “But we have to watch the contractors
because they always want to install lights that are acceptable in neighbouring municipalities, but illegal here.”
In Muskoka, meanwhile, supporters of the Torrance Barrens are using the dark-skies designation to try to convince neighbouring municipalities to pass lighting bylaws. Lack of development in the rocky, swampy preserve has kept its sky relatively dark. But the area sits amid some of the most desirable cottage country in the province. A steady increase in night lighting throughout the region is blurring the view close to the horizon. “We’ve been coming up here for 50 years,” says retired Toronto architect Peter Goering, who led the campaign to protect the barrens, “and I’ve seen the night sky deteriorate. The lakes are lined with cottages now and wherever you look, it’s lights, lights, lights.” Danny Driscoll, one participant in the North York association’s expedition, first searched the skies from Muskoka
three decades ago when stars were visible just above the trees. Now, he says, there is too much light at that level. Standing among colleagues using red flashlights to consult their sky charts without exposing their eyes to bright light, Driscoll surveys the horizon. He points to the glow from Orillia, a city 60 km to the southeast, and fainter smudges from Gravenhurst and Bala, smaller communities 20 km away. But higher in the heavens, the Torrance Barrens provide ideal conditions for astronomical observation. On that inaugural weekend, Driscoll and fellow skywatchers found the galaxies, clusters and other celestial beauties they were seeking. “We actually saw something that was 2.5 billion light-years away, according to our charts,” he said. “It was just a pinpoint of light, but a very interesting object.” One visible only in an unlit sky, the kind that is progressively disappearing in built-up areas.
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