Preserving Our Night Skies

by | April 2022, Nature and Environment

Lake Placid’s James B. Sheffield Olympic Skating Rink with its new, broadcast-quality lights before the dimmers were installed. Photograph by Johnathan Esper

On the evening of January 2nd, Lake Placid attorney Amy Quinn took her dogs for a walk in her quiet neighborhood behind the village’s old railroad tracks. A lover of the night sky, she assumed her dog walk would offer up the heavens as she’d known them during her 19 years living in the region. Instead, she was surprised by the opposite. An intense ball of artificial light was emanating from the center of town. “Oh my God,” Quinn remembers thinking at the time, “this is glowing.” She took a picture of her house, backlit by the Close Encounters–like glimmering, and posted it on Facebook. One by one, villagers chimed in. “Everybody was like, ‘I can’t believe this. This is insane.’”

The light in question was not a visitation from an alien civilization. Rather, it was the brand-new array the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) had installed around the James B. Sheffield Olympic Skating Rink, or “oval,” as part of a $12 million upgrade carried out last year. The setup, capable of delivering enough lumens for professional TV recording at any hour of day, had been switched on for the first time on December 23rd. Because of supply chain issues, the dimmers, which were supposed to accompany the lights, failed to arrive. As a result, Amy Quinn and the rest of the village were treated to two weeks of full-blast, broadcast-quality illumination during evening skating sessions and until the Zamboni finished smoothing the ice.

A week after Quinn’s dog walk, I checked in with ORDA’s Mike Pratt to see if any progress was being made with the dimming situation. The necessary equipment had arrived, he reported, and “by tomorrow night we’ll have full functionality. It will allow us to dim and fade in and out. It will allow us to change colors so we can recognize different events or even different countries’ flag colors.”

But as ORDA rushes to make adjustments to lower the radiant and emotional temperature around the oval affair, the sudden exposure illuminated an insidious truth about light pollution: it creeps up on you. As we push deeper and deeper into the wilderness we claim to cherish so much, we inevitably bring with us the security blanket of artificial light to make that wilderness seem not quite so scary. Bulb by bulb we are causing a key element of the Adirondacks’ mystery to wink out ever so gradually.

Keene-based amateur astronomer Dave Craig makes the argument for the sanctity of the night sky. “I’ve read that the sky is light-polluted for 80 percent of the world’s population, and that a third of humanity has never seen the Milky Way,” he said. He himself had never seen it until he left the Boston area 20 years ago. Wowed by the beauty of a truly dark sky, Craig began setting up his telescope in Keene’s Norton Cemetery and inviting the public to stargaze. “One of the best things I can do is to raise awareness of how rare our dark Adirondack sky is,” he said. “I point out things in the sky and talk about light pollution and how good we’ve still got it here.”

Last year Craig asked Stewart’s headquarters to take light pollution into consideration, eventually convincing the convenient-store chain to lower the “color temperature” of the lights when it rebuilt its shop in Keene. The higher the color temperature the more intrusive the bulb. Craig talked Stewart’s down from 5700K to 4000K—he would have preferred 2700K. (Lake Placid’s new skating rink lights are 5000K.) He and the Keene Clean Energy Team have done similar work with the town of Keene itself, making a GIS map of every streetlight in the community, helping administrators install the least intrusive bulbs possible.

For private citizens to limit their own light pollution, Craig encourages using bulbs on the yellow side of the spectrum (warm-white bulbs) rather than the blue (daylight bulbs), with a color temperature of 2700K or less. He suggests that floodlights be motion-sensing, to only install lights in areas for walking and parking, and to use fixtures that shield and direct light downward.

Craig hopes that his dark-sky boosterism finds its way into regulation. Several years ago, a new energy code was proposed in Albany that would have put limitations on the intensity and placement of exterior lights. That code never materialized, but the thinking around it lived on. A handful of light-pollution bills have since been introduced into the state legislature, the most recent being the January 6th “Dark Skies Act” (S. 7663), which would require “most non-essential outdoor lighting be extinguished after 11 p.m., motion activated, or covered by an external shield.” Backed by the New York State chapter of Audubon, S. 7663 is meant to address the disruption of migratory flyways, predator-prey interactions and other problems artificial light causes wildlife.

I thought about all this as I made my way to Amy Quinn’s house to see if the oval had been made any dimmer by the dimmers. To my eye, no. I saw lights from the oval, reflected off the white ice and bouncing far into the sky above.

I searched my mind for something to compare it to. Did it look like the Acropolis of Athens with the Olympic Center serving as the Parthenon? Did it look like the 9/11 memorial lights that I see from my Manhattan apartment every September, and which cause the death of hundreds of birds?

Maybe.

But what came to mind was a memory of a darker Lake Placid in the 1970s, before the Cold Brook Plaza was built, before Hannaford and Price Chopper and the other brightly lit businesses came to dominate the town’s western edge. On one of those dark nights my grandfather called me up to the deck of his Sentinel Hill house and told me to look toward the horizon. There, a green glow danced in the heavens so magically it made me catch my breath.

It was the northern lights. 

Paul Greenberg is the author of The Climate Diet: 50 Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint


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