The falling of stars 

Is light pollution blotting out Whistler's spectacular night sky?

click to flip through (3) PHOTO BY DAVID MCCOLM

Page 7 of 11

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.


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