Fighting light pollution in the Tahoe Basin
Ryan Summerlin April 6, 2006
INCLINE VILLAGE – It was a calm, cold and cloudy night in late January when the phone of local night sky enthusiast and photographer, Dan Oday, rang.
The caller was Dr. Paul Guttman, astronomer and founder of Space Science for Schools.
Guttman had just passed through Sheep’s Flats on State Route 431 on his way back to Incline from Reno. As the Tahoe vista opened in front of him, he was surprised to see the sun rising over Squaw Valley.
“Dan,” he said, as Oday picked up. “It looks like the sun is rising over Squaw Valley right now.”
The two men met up at the Incline overlook at approximately 8:30 p.m. to check out the phenomenon.
From the highway pullout it was easy to outline the entire basin, eerily illuminated by city and town lights reflected onto the low-lying clouds hanging just over the mountains.
An especially bright light rose behind silhouettes of West Shore mountains, the Squaw Valley “sunrise” Guttman had alluded to when he called Oday. The “sunrise” was the reflection of Squaw’s night time slope lights.
Appalled by evidence for what the two men described as “poor regulation of light pollution,” Oday began snapping photos at 15- and 30- second exposures to document their viewing experience.
“We are losing our night sky,” said Guttman who used the developed photos to showcase how much light is emitted upward into the sky above Tahoe every night.
Lights, especially those that emit bright white light and or that project light up or sideways, diminish night sky visibility.
“The problem just keeps being compounded,” Guttman continued. “We’re just at this point where we have this knee jerk impulse that we need to illuminate everything.”
Hank Raymond, amateur astronomer and resident of Meyers, works with Guttman to make sure light pollution is a concern addressed by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and by Pathway 2007.
Their efforts have resulted in a “Dark Sky” desired condition being adopted by the scenic resource program as part of the Pathways 2007 process.
The condition states: “Views of the night sky from the naturally appearing areas of the Basin are conducive to star gazing. Light emanating from the built environment is carefully controlled to ensure safety and security without encroaching on the regional dark sky.”
“We’ve had lots of discussions on evaluators and indicators for the future (of nighttime lighting),” said Julie Regan, spokesperson for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. “We do want to be able to enjoy the night skies at Lake Tahoe and we know from doing public opinion polling that this is important to residents and visitors.”
Guttman and Raymond both applaud the desired condition written into the scenic portion of the process but remain concerned that not enough action will be taken to begin to lessen the impact bright lights around Tahoe have on nighttime in the basin.
“It is not like we are saying we should turn off all the lights, that is not what we mean,” said Raymond who pointed out there is a difference between good lighting and bad lighting. “When you put up a light it should shine where you want it to shine, not where you don’t need or want the light.”
Guttman and Raymond provided examples of regulations instituted by a variety of cities around the U.S. to reduce both the energy expended on lighting as well as the amount of light projected into the night sky. Among the cities working with light pollution are Tucson, Ariz., Hilo, Hawaii and Mammoth, Calif.
Guttman said most of the time addressing light pollution results in an overall reduction of energy – which saves money.
“We could save millions of barrels of oil just by unscrewing the thousands of inefficient light bulbs in the basin and replacing them with efficient bulbs,” Guttman said.
To learn more about light pollution, efficient lights and methods for reducing light pollution visit www.darksky.org