COLUMN: Increasing light darkens view of sky

Saturday Beat

Took a walk with my wife down the Nootka Trail last month. It’s a six-day, 35-kilometre backpack down some of Nootka Island’s most rugged, remote and beautiful terrain.

Along with Island Alpine Guide’s Mike Blake and two wonderful companions from Belgium, we saw coastal wolves, a black bear foraging on the beach, sea lions and breaching humpbacks.

The scenery was stunning and shortly after the float plane landed in Starfish Cove, we knew it would be a trip of a lifetime.

And while all of those things were memorable, indeed, we’ll remember them forever, what really blew me away was something I had forgotten I was missing: the night sky.

It returned my sense of wonder, and, along with the nearby crashing waves of the wide open Pacific Ocean, made me feel very small.

I think that’s a good thing.

Living in an urban centre in 2011 makes it easy to forget to look up at night. More and more every day, larger and brighter lighting is installed for commercial, utility, functional and residential purposes.

Not being a nocturnal species, we crave artificial light. It makes us feel safe, it makes us noticeable, it allows us to function when the sun sets.

It also degrades our circadian rhythms, and it drowns out a celestial symphony of wonder; constellations, shooting stars, comets, waxing and waning moons, and planets.

In a satellite image provided to me by Nanaimo resident Fiona MacInnes, a huge and expanding portion of North America is so artificially lit up that the Milky Way is very difficult to see for most residents, never mind vast areas that are saturated with light pollution that dims the night sky.

MacInnes appealed to city council to not allow Shape Properties to add to its already bright signage at Nanaimo North Town Centre.

Living across the highway from the mall, MacInnes said she has accepted increased traffic along the highway and the noise it creates, the removal of more than 20 trees within a 500 metre radius of her home and ever increasing commercial lighting outside her kitchen window.

In her eloquent and well-researched plea to council, she explained how “there is a gradual, sneaky process occurring around us and it has been named by scientists – urban sky glow,” she said.

Urban sky glow is the combined output of all the lights in a city that cause the night sky to be washed out.

The night sky has become so invisible to two-thirds of the North American population and other parts of the world that UNESCO and other agencies have proclaimed the dark sky as part of World Cultural Heritage.

MacInnes, who lost her appeal to council, said she is not anti-artificial light. She simply points out that light pollution should be considered more often, and that there are many ways to reduce it. She also discovered that in North America, more than $1 billion worth of lighting is wasted annually.

Her suggestions to council to limit light pollution made sense, starting with a simple recognition of the problem. Following that, she asked that council consider light pollution when applications come in for larger and brighter signage, that existing commercial signage be dimmed outside of store hours, and that better, less intrusive technology be used when adding new lights or replacing worn out ones.

“We have not yet become aware enough of the needs to preserve the night sky,” said MacInnes. “Yet it is something we can all embrace and effect in a positive way. ”

With Nanaimo on the verge of becoming a large city, now would be an excellent time to consider a strategy so that future generations don’t need to travel to a remote location like the Nootka Trail to pause and wonder beneath the night sky.