It wasn't all that long ago, just a few hundred years, that the stars overhead were still a beautiful mystery, woven into the religious beliefs and mythology of human civilizations — civilizations that could only look up and wonder what the sparkling night sky was trying to tell them. They used the stars to navigate, the moon to track the months and seasons, the constellations to tell stories, and held them up as proof that we are not alone in even the darkest of nights.
Although we know better now and recognize that every point of light we see is a distant star like our own sun — or possibly a far distant galaxy if our eyes are really good — the wonder has never really ceased.
If anything, the sense of wonder has multiplied as we try to comprehend our humble place in the almost infinite space that surrounds us, with its hundreds of billions stars in each of maybe half a trillion galaxies, where the light from even the closest star to earth, Proxima Centauri, takes 4.2 years to reach us at a speed we can scarcely comprehend.
The sheer scale of things defies imagination.
There are galaxies much, much larger than our own Milky Way, which is 100,000 light years in diameter — IC1011 is 60 times larger in fact.
There are galaxy clusters with quadrillions (thousands of billions) of stars. There's a vapour cloud that contains enough water to cover a trillion planets with earth-like quantities of the molecule. There are gas nebulas, remnants of exploding suns that are themselves 100 light years in diameter.
There are stars like VY Canis Majoris that are up to 2,200 times wider in diameter than our own sun — which is itself 110 times wider than Earth.
"In space travel," says Slartibartfast, a cantankerous character in the Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, "all the numbers are awful."
And yet, with the right instruments and persistence, we can measure slight variations in the intensity of light from stars more than 1,000 light years away to discern whether they have any planets orbiting around them — how many, how big and in what kind of orbit. In fact, recent discoveries suggest that planets are theoretically possible around every star, and may actually be more common than we previously realized.
It goes without saying that the implications in the ongoing search for extraterrestrial life are enormous, as we burrow into data to reveal more earth-like planets that presumably have all the core precursors for life that are present everywhere — a list of ingredients that can be found scattered around the universe in huge quantities, from the surface of Mars to asteroids hurtling through space. It's important to know what the potential is, even if the distances are so huge that space travel between any two worlds is theoretically impossible for human beings.
Given that we still don't really understand what gravity is and what gives particles mass, and are still identifying new sub-atomic particles, it's safe to say that we're still in early days here. Theories may change; the impossible may one day be possible, and humans could one day stand on another planet in another solar system. One day we may even find a way to communicate with another intelligence, and be reassured once and for all that we're not alone.
How can you look up at the stars and not feel awe?
The awe, then and now
There are some who feel that Whistler's night sky, once clear enough to see the blue-white glow of the Milky Way on any moonless night from practically anywhere, is being blotted out by light pollution — the result of development and policies that don't place as high a value on the night sky as other factors.
I've been in Whistler since 1999 and while I'm no astronomer I do know I used to be able to stand outside my office in Function Junction at night and see a vivid night sky with the arc of the Milky Way overhead. Now the Pique offices are surrounded by new buildings, offices, warehouses and residences, some of which have exterior lights that shoot photons directly into the sky for reasons of safety and/or aesthetics. There's a new BC Hydro yard that is lit up brightly from dusk to dawn, and exterior lights on business signs.
Across the highway and up the road a little, some 1,200 or so locals live in a brand new neighbourhood with every light adding even more light to the mix at this end of town. The Valley Trail lighting poles in Cheakamus Crossing were designed to look like Olympic torches, an artistic decision that casts more unshielded light into the atmosphere than the usual overhead Valley Trail lights.
I live in Bear Ridge, which was built in 2002 and where every pairing of homes has an unshielded light on the exterior wall and the entire lane is lit with partially shielded bulbs. It's bright enough to play road hockey long after the sun has gone down.
Spring Creek Community School opened across the road in 2004 with unshielded sodium vapor lamps casting an orange glow over the area until late in the evening. The more expensive homes in the Spring Creek area also use upward lights to call attention to expensive exterior rockwork and illuminate trees. During Christmas, there are festive lights everywhere.
Both Creekside and the Village have grown by leaps and bounds as well with new hotels and buildings. There's a tube park that's lit up at night and an Olympic sliding track that gets most of its use in the evenings.
There's a new transit station at Nesters that's been widely criticized for excessive light. Further north there's another new neighbourhood, Rainbow, nestled between Alpine and Emerald.
Many of our village trees are now decked top to bottom with Christmas lights through the winter with hundreds of thousands more bulbs than before in the build-up to the 2010 Olympic Games — a level of illumination made possible by energy efficient LED technology that makes colourful lighting both cheap and durable. It's beautiful, as is the glowing Inuksuk at the corner of Village Gate and the Gateway Loop, the glowing bridge and gazebo — but there's also no question that all this electrical magic blots out the natural glamour of our night sky.
It's been argued before that as a resort founded on the natural beauty of its mountains, forests and lakes — where the view is a commodity people are willing to pay millions for — the night sky has value. Given that more than half the people in the world live in urbanized areas — and over 80 per cent of Canadians — a lot of people who come to Whistler may have never seen the stars as they were meant to be seen. Sadly, if they don't leave the village in search of darker places they won't see many stars here either.
People care, and the municipality is listening
The level of development in the run-up to the 2010 Games was unprecedented, whether it was new infrastructure that would be used in the Games themselves or other projects that the municipality or developers pushed ahead to have ready for the big event.
One of those projects was the construction of the new transit station at Nesters. In the beginning the project was controversial because a small area of wetland had to be filled in to build the tarmac. These days, however, the controversy is over light pollution, with angry residents from Nicklaus North, Spruce Grove and White Gold writing into Pique and the municipality to complain about the omnipresent, dawn 'til dusk glow of the yard. While a lot of the lighting is no doubt necessary — the transit system runs 5 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily and some employees work around the clock cleaning and maintaining the buses — some have argued that the lighting is excessive.
Residents, with help from the municipality, successfully lobbied BC Transit, Whistler's provincial partner in the transit station, to address the impact of the lights. BC Transit recently agreed to install shielding on fixtures to direct the lighting downward at a cost of $200 per light fixture. Only time will tell if it's enough to placate local residents.
It was a small but important victory in the battle against light pollution, and if nothing else it will give other developers something to think about when building in the future.
Whistler is not unique when it comes to battles over light pollution, and there are countless recent examples of people pushing back against excessive lighting. For instance, there's a certain amount of anger in Vancouver among condo owners that look towards the upgraded BC Stadium with its glowing roof and massive outdoor television screens that flicker at all hours. An ad by Telus, with its signature white background and animals frolicking in the foreground, was compared in the media to having a spotlight beamed into your window. There are also new digital billboards and public art around the city that use lights, and that are attracting some negative attention.
The problem is that bylaws in Vancouver, like Whistler, aren't that explicit when it comes to light pollution. There's almost nothing about light pollution in the B.C. Building Code, leaving communities to deal with the problem through a hodgepodge of local bylaws that are generally vague and seldom enforced. Light pollution is recognized as a thing, it's just not specifically quantified or qualified in any reasonable way.
For example, Whistler's Official Community Plan specifies that within Whistler Village that "Illumination levels should be of sufficient intensity to provide security but not overpower the nightscape. Illumination should be low level and low glare."
The OCP also includes lighting as a consideration in rezoning applications, and makes non-binding recommendations for things like direct downward lighting with full cut-off and fully-shielded fixtures, and utilization of technology like shut-off controls, motion sensors and timers.
While that's the stated municipal policy, the reality is that the municipality doesn't always follow its own guidelines. For example, the decorative lights around the village are certainly not directed or shielded in any way and are not specifically required for safety. The "torch" lights on the Valley Trail in Cheakamus Crossing are not shielded at all. The new transit depot had unshielded lights; as well as upward lights on the hydrogen tank when it opened that were there purely to highlight the name of the company supplying the hydrogen fuel.
When it comes to the village, most people appreciate the effect of the lights and there's no question that they do create a nice ambiance for both locals and visitors. My daughter loves it, and skating at Whistler Olympic Plaza after dark is a magical experience. But the lights are plainly not there for reasons of safety, and do have an impact on the "nightscape."
Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden says that ultimately it's about balance.
"Really it's a balance between providing security and safety, but not overpowering the night sky," she says. "So it's always about low-level lighting and low glare lighting. We really try to avoid light pollution, but of course provide for safer pedestrians at the same time."
But says Wilhelm-Morden, the municipality could be doing a better job, especially in neighbourhoods and areas like Function Junction. However, for all the people asking for less light, she points out that a lot of people are actually asking for more — including lights along the highway and on neighbourhood sideroads for safety reasons.
"I guess it depends on your perspective," she says. "We have to try and achieve a balance between the two things."
She also points out that Whistler is in the tourism industry, and that tourists do appreciate the lights in the village after dark — and by concentrating that experience in the village, she says you don't have to walk very far to see the night sky.
"Where I live in Alpine there are no street lights and the night sky is spectacular," she says. "But if you're in the village you only have to take a walk out to Lost Lake or the golf course to see the stars. Maybe that's something we should be promoting."
Ultimately, preserving the quality of the night sky viewing experience, such as it is, may be a job for the people who live here rather than the provincial government. Within the Whistler 2020 sustainability framework, the issue of the night sky is covered in a brochure titled "Mountains of Difference" produced by the Whistler Centre for Sustainability.
"You can see the stars at night in Whistler," it reads. "Help to reduce light pollution, energy use and emissions by turning off lights — sit back and enjoy the night sky."
Speaking for the stars
Amateur astronomers John Nemy and Carol Legate need no introduction to people who have lived in Whistler for a while. In the 1990s they used to host slide shows and telescope viewings from the top of Blackcomb Mountain before moving to Ontario for a brief period to conduct astronomy tours at a winery. They returned to Whistler after the Millennium and picked up where they left off by hosting events like star talks and outdoor events. One event held by the Whistler Astronomy Club during a close pass by Mars drew hundreds of stargazers to Rainbow Park to look through half a dozen telescopes owned by local enthusiasts.
As well, Nemy was part of a group called FRODO (Friends of the Dark Outdoors) that was active in Whistler for the middle '00s but disappeared as members left town. (Nemy and others are looking to resurrect FRODO in 2013 — see end of story.)
But above all their volunteer activities, the pair also worked towards their long-term goal of creating a full-time, public observatory in the resort.
And not just any observatory — an observatory with the largest public telescope in the world with a lens measuring two or three metres in diameter. They called it the "Very Large People's Telescope" (VLPT), and Nemy and Legate pictured a centre that would draw people from around the world to the resort to look through the lens at far-off galaxies.
Star tourism is a real thing after all, says Nemy, and interest is growing with all of the recent discoveries of things like water on Mars and planets circling distant stars. "Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico — they are all destinations for astronomy, and if people are going there then I thought it could happen in Whistler, too," he says. "I visited (the Lowell Observatory) in Flagstaff Arizona, and they get almost 200,000 visitors a year — and most of those don't even get a chance to look through a telescope. If we did have a landmark like this it would be an attraction. Like something you'd see at Disney, but all happening in real-time."
Nemy became discouraged with the lack of local support for his idea, and recently moved his own big telescope and astronomy operations to Hornby Island where he's set up a stargazing attraction called Island Stars. He does a radio show and hosts stargazing events, as well as a few astronomy events during the daylight. More than 50 people turned out for his first daytime event, a transit of Venus where the planet passed between the earth and sun back in June, with a lot of people staying after dark to look through his telescopes.
He hasn't given up on the VLPT entirely and believes it still belongs in Whistler, but says it's not likely to happen soon — or even in B.C.
"It will happen somewhere on the planet, like Chile, where there will be a massive telescope that people can look through," he said. "I was talking to astronomer Doug Welch (professor of physics and astronomy at McMcMaster) about the idea at a stargazing event, and whether he thought people would be interested, and he said 'you have no idea — right now you're looking at a nebula and the human eye is not sensitive enough to see colours. But with the proper telescope it starts to rival the really vivid images you see at the big observatories.'"
Nemy says the night sky in Whistler has changed a lot since he arrived in 1984. In fact, the night sky in Whistler is what originally motivated him to learn more about astronomy.
"In 1984 I came to Whistler and just immediately became interested in astronomy, and I started to pick apart the myriad of stars overhead," he said. "Then I finally realized that the band of stars above was the Milky Way (the galaxy we live in) one time when I was sitting outside a tent at Russet Lake, and it was like, 'yeah, this is too cool to pass up.'
"Especially during July and August, and later in the summer when the band arcs right overhead... and you can find a place that has an unrestricted horizon, and you get that fish-eye effect while looking at the edge-on view of our galaxy. Sometimes it's a little hard to see the forest for the trees, but that view... if you understand that we're on a flat disk, and about two-thirds of the way out from galactic centre and you're actually looking at the disk edge-on, something just pops in your psyche — especially when you also consider that the photons your seeing are millions of years old, that's how long they took to get to us.""
As for the stargazing experience in Whistler, Nemy is conflicted.
"It hasn't gotten better, that's for sure," he says. "It sounds cliché to say 'the good old days,' but 25 years ago you could easily see the Milky Way from anywhere in the village. You can probably still get a hint of it on some nights, but the casual person walking through town won't notice it."
Winters are particularly challenging, says Nemy, for reasons both natural and man-made.
"In Whistler, and any community that has snowfall in the winter, (stargazing) is a little worse because snow is reflective. Once upon a time, Montreal was the brightest city on the planet when viewed from space because of that snow," says Nemy.
When the snow guns are going in the early part of winter, it's almost impossible to see any stars from the village with ice particles in the atmosphere reflecting light.
"There's this weird, white haze over the village because of the light pollution and the artificial moisture slipping through it," he explains.
Atmosphere is important for astronomers; the higher you go the less dust, particulate and water molecules are there to catch light and obstruct your view of the night sky. However, he says the view of the night sky on Horny Island at sea levels is better than the view in most place in Whistler these days because of the light pollution.
"It's epic," he says of Hornby's stargazing potential. "It's really dark, and it's warmer because we're at sea level, and it's insect-free which is pretty amazing... and we have some unusual circumstances because we're surrounded by water.
"At night you do get some twinkling stars, but not as much as I thought we would. The one big trade-off is the altitude. If you get up to 2,000 metres, looking through about 25 per cent less air and moisture, the stars are bright and clear, you can see brighter colours, and you can see farther, fainter things which is a definite allure to stargazers."
It's for that thinner atmosphere that most observatories are located at altitudes, preferably in desert areas that see fewer clouds and less moisture than other areas. It's also the reason why the Hubble Telescope was able to capture images of distant galaxies and astronomical objects better than any earthbound observatories.
But while Whistler village is definitely challenged for stargazing, Nemy said there are still good places to go to observe stars, like Rainbow Park and Lost Lake. He also likes going to the Callaghan Valley, although he says you can see the lights of Whistler on the horizon — and in the other direction, the lights of Squamish, which he says have also increased substantially in the last 15 years or so.
"(Light pollution) has really ramped up in the last 15 years or so," Nemy says. "It used to be just somewhat noticeable but now..." he sighs. "I like to take pictures at night, but when you take a longer exposure photo with a camera that's sensitive to light, it just pops up and it's pretty intrusive."
But, taking the other side of the debate, Nemy says he does like the festive lights in the village and understands why they're there.
"I don't want to put too negative a spin on it, that's what tourists want to see, and it does create a nice atmosphere for the village," he says.
"But I moved to Whistler many years ago for a lot of reasons that aren't there now, and I still love it because of the natural world that surrounds Whistler. But where does that fit in now? In a way we've gone the same way as the rest of the planet, although I think Whistler still has an opportunity to really stand out in the world full of resorts as a natural destination... it's a 'less is more' kind of thing."
Nemy says the days of shooting light photons in the sky may be ending anyway, for practical reasons rather than any debate over aesthetics and nature.
"We're not saying no to lighting, just to use it wisely and efficiently, and when you look at websites like the International Dark Sky Association, they're predicting that light pollution is an issue that will solve itself in the next few decades," he says. "Why? Because it will be too expensive to create unnecessary, unused lighting that can be seen from everywhere. Lighting has a cost, and it's significant when it's not shining directly on the matter at hand, like pointing directly at the road when you're walking down the street. Otherwise it's wasted light, it's wasted energy and it's bad for the environment. About one quarter of the world's electricity bill is used to make light — except in Africa. And we have a lot of hydroelectric power in B.C. but in other places it's coal, it's gas, it's nuclear power that's keeping those lights on."
When the costs of lighting go up, the number of lights will go down, says Nemy. Lights will be more efficient, and part of that efficiency means focusing light rather than spreading it all directions.
"That's where Whistler can really lead, as one of the premier mountain destinations on the planet we can promote that way of doing things," says Nemy. "I think it's something that tourists will really appreciate."
Shooting for the stars
Whistler photographer David McColm shoots a little of everything with his very expensive cameras, but it's his landscape photography — often obtained after long hikes into the backcountry in the dark to get the perfect light — that define his work. He's shot sunsets and sunrises over various local peaks and alpine lakes, and some incredible combined night sky and landscape photography as well.
From his perspective, light pollution is an obstacle that gets in the way of some of his more ambitious shots.
"I'm not an astronomer, I don't have a telescope, but I do study the night sky in terms of how it affects me getting shots of the night sky," he says. "I know where the moon is, where the sun and the moon are rising and setting, and where the key planets are like Venus, Jupiter, Mars..."
He never shoots the sky alone, but uses stars, planets and the moon as a backdrop to his landscapes with astonishing effect. "I guess I'm a bit of a night owl, and I like shooting the crazy night sky," he says.
While shooting at night, he says the glow of light pollution is something that is harder to get away from. He has to go further into the backcountry, or aim his lens away from Whistler and Squamish, "and especially Vancouver."
He says, "I can't shoot in certain directions, for example, because there's a major impact of glow from Vancouver and the Fraser Valley — and it's strong and it's there all night and you can't avoid it. Sometimes it makes for interesting photos, but it's hard to avoid ambient light unless you can get really far away from all lights in general, like really far away from civilization."
With long exposures and sensitive lenses, even small amounts of light pollution can impact his landscapes.
That said, however, he still likes to shoot from local parks like Rainbow and Lakeside after dark, especially when there's aurora borealis, "the northern lights" like there was for a few days this summer during a period of intense solar flare activity. For other shots, he likes to hike into the backcountry like Russet Lake or over the top of Rainbow to the Hanging Lake area. "But you really don't have to go that far," to see stars, says McColm, "All you need to do is go to Alta Lake or Lost Lake. Take a blanket and lie down. It's always worth it."
McColm thinks the night sky is a lost opportunity for Whistler, an attraction the resort should do more to promote. He's met people from around the world on his late night hikes, people who have never really seen the stars before, and he says the effect is profound:
"I was in Banff National Park one time because there was a chance that aurora borealis would be going off, and I arrived at the lookout before the sun went down and took a few shots. It was obvious I was going to spend the night at the lookout. A random couple from Holland came by to see what I was doing, and they ended up staying with me to see it too. They went to sleep, and at 2 a.m. (the northern lights came) and I woke them up and it was stunning. They got to see it for the first time ever. I don't know if we could ever do something like that here, but they were completely blown away. When they talk about Canada, that's what they're going to remember."
Like Nemy, McColm sees any light that's not completely necessary as a waste of resources. "Christmas lighting there's a need for, there's a focus on tourists and it's part of the experience," he says. "But looking at the bus depot — standing on the mountain and looking down at the village, that facility always just jumps out at me.
"In the summer you can see the ball diamonds from up there, and I assume the lights are on because they're being used. But there are buildings that are not serving any function at that time of day other than having lights on, and I think those lights should be shut off or put on dimmers. It would save money, and I think we'd all appreciate the view a bit more."
The Friends of the Dark Outdoors (FRODO) is looking to re-establish a presence in Whistler to speak for the night sky and what John Nemy calls "our starry heritage."
The group, which includes members of the Whistler Astronomy Club, is hosting its first meeting on Jan. 14 at the Whistler Public Library, running from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. More information will be posted at www.nemy.com, or you can call 604-938-8090 for more information.
International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) — www.darksky.org
Island Stars (John Nemy) — www.nemy.com
David McColm Photography — www.davidmccolm.com
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