“I used to stand at my son’s bedroom window, when he was two or three, and look northward to see stars,” says Forest Pearson, a resident of downtown Whitehorse.
“Then the streetlights were switched and we couldn’t do it anymore ... we couldn’t see the stars anymore.”
The streetlights on Pearson’s street were changed to LEDs five years ago as a pilot project. They are 40 per cent cheaper to operate, they last longer, require less maintenance and give off lots of light.
For those who like the perceived safety of bright streetlights, the switch seemed like a winner.
But ... “these lights have a significant blue component,” says Pearson. “And blue light scatters more and your eye is more sensitive to blue light and it effectively blinds you more than other lights.”
The brightening of the night sky by streetlight and other city lights is called “light pollution” and it has become more and more of an issue in society.
A year ago, when the Yukon Astronomical Society was formed, Pearson joined as a member and now heads up its Light Pollution Abatement Project.
That’s right: the good folks who like to study the lights in the sky needed to advocate for an appropriate amount, and quality, of light on our Earth.
The more skyglow there is from unnecessary and improper lighting, the further out astronomy enthusiasts have to travel away to get a good view of the night sky.
“At first, it was not an activity the society wanted to put forward right away,” says Catheryne Lorde, a director. “Going into some activism in the first year would be a challenge.
“But if we didn’t act right away, we would be stuck. LED lights last a long time, so we would be screwed for 10,15, 20 years.”
The streetlights on Lorde’s street were part of the pilot project, too. She rejoiced when one of these blue-rich lights burned out… and was saddened when it was fixed.
They are very much like those blue headlights you see coming at you on the highway.
“They are horrendous,” says Lorde. “They impede your vision of the surroundings. If there is any wildlife coming toward you, forget it.”
Pearson’s team gathered up the latest research and prepared a white paper to be presented to the City of Whitehorse, ATCO Electric Yukon, Yukon Energy Corporation and a few communities. It was sent out last April.
The research included standards set out by the International Dark Sky Association and calls for the 3,000 Kelvin lighting that appears warmer, more orange.
“The City of Whitehorse said, ‘Oh good, this is timely, we don’t have these standards... thanks for this,’” recounts Pearson.
“The Yukon Energy Corporation was a little more disappointing. They said they are going to keep doing what they are doing.”
But, ATCO surprised them with an email that said, “Okay, thanks. Sure, we will adopt the 3,000 Kelvin.”
Jay Massie, manager of ATCO Electric Yukon, says he remembers receiving the research paper.
“It was quite good to see,” he says today. “It was in line with the direction we were heading.”
As of one year ago, LEDs will be exclusively used for new streetlights.
“Since (the pilot project five years ago), like with any technology, they’ve gotten better,” says Massie. “They were blue, but now they are closer to the orange colour of the old High Pressure Sodium (HPS) lighting.”
When replacing streetlights, the Transposition Association of Canada standards call for uniformity. HPS has an orange glow and, now, the LEDs are manufactured with a warm glow.
But Pearson’s work isn’t done yet. His team needs to spread the word that “directional” lighting is important, too. Lights need to illuminate just the roadway.
Driving above the Alaska Highway, on Robert Service Way toward the Hamilton Blvd extension, he points to the streetlights on the right. They are directional so the light shines down onto the road, but because the top of the lamp is covered, the light does not shine upwards. It leaves the sky above the streetlight dark.
On the left, the old HPS lighting remains.
Getting out of the car at the roundabout, looking down, you can see the HPS lights, but not the new directional lights. The HPS lights are not covered at the top, so light beams up as well as down. But looking down onto the directional lights, you only know they are there because the road underneath is lit – looking down onto them you don't see light shining up. Yet both sides of the road are well-lit.
This is a test that the Yukon Government asked for. As an alternative to the blue LED lights Massie wanted to try out the latest technology before using them on the Alaska Highway.
Another step to combat light pollution is for communities to consider if they need streetlights on roadways that don’t have pedestrians. Or turning some off after a certain hour at night.
This will benefit Yukon tourism as night sky viewing will be enhanced. The skyglow from Whitehorse, itself, extends from Carcross to Marsh Lake and to halfway down the Takhini Valley.
“I was in Portland, Oregon, a big city, but I could see the Milky Way,” says Pearson. “They only have street lighting at intersections.
“A good measure for suburban areas is can you see the Milky Way.”
Returning from our trip to the top of Robert Service Way, we pass by the Yukon Energy Corporation hydro facilities. Pearson looks out his window and sighs, “Why do they light up an empty parking lot?”