By Tim Rowland
Public lighting of a sort dates back to the ancient city of Antioch, but it was really King Louis XIV—the Sun King—who put street lighting on the map and turned Paris into the celebrated City of Light.
With electricity came a blaze of glowing advertisements that at the turn of the 20th century earned Broadway the title of the Great White Way.
“Mildly insane by day, the square goes divinely mad by night,” beamed journalist Will Irwin in 1927. “For then on every wall, above every cornice, in every nook and cranny, blossom and dance the electric advertising signs.”
But all this light has come at a cost.
Eighty percent of Americans cannot see the Milky Way at night for the glow of artificial light. Bad sleep is a result of locales that never really get dark. The natural patterns of wildlife are threatened by the perpetual glow. Perhaps most notably, stargazers say, there is a universal connection and an artistic aesthetic that’s missing from lives when we can’t see the stars.
In contrast to much of the United States east of the Mississippi, Adirondack skies are relatively free from light pollution. Nighttime satellite imagery shows lighting of various intensity throughout the East, with the exception of an inky black doughnut hole defined almost exactly by the park’s boundaries.
Even so, stargazers and photographers say, light pollution is encroaching on the Adirondacks, and the issue is worthy of attention. Dark skies are part of the wilderness ethic, and they are also central to an emerging travel niche called astrotourism. Stargazers in the park are enthusiastic about the possibilities—hikers have been taught to climb a mountain and look down at the view, but what if they were encouraged to look up?
In the Adirondacks, stargazers say, nightlife shouldn’t mean going to a bar.
“To a certain extent it has to be pointed out that nature doesn’t stop at the tree line,” said Seth McGowan, vice president of the Adirondack Sky Center and Observatory in Tupper Lake. “But at some time or another, everyone is fascinated by the wilderness above.”
Stargazing can be both inspiring and confounding beyond belief. The enormity of the universe can take your brain and bend it around a tree. Light, whose travel here on Earth seems instantaneous, can take thousands of years to reach us from stars that in the grand scheme aren’t even all that far away. The light from Icarus, the most distant star astronomers have detected, began its journey here 4.5 billion years before Earth even formed.
McGowan said he has watched as new stargazers peer through a telescope thinking about things they have never considered before. “They kind of have this existential moment. They can’t fathom a star that’s 1,800 light years away, or that … it may not even be there anymore,” he said. “When they look through the telescope they wonder, is there some other planet looking back at us? You can almost smell the wood burning.”
Due, perhaps, to its nocturnal nature, stargazing is enjoyed by more people at more locations across the North Country than might be imagined, Although the coronavirus has paused in-person viewing, McGowan said in normal times, long lines to the observatory’s telescopes snake out the door to take in the night skies. Members are in the process of raising $15 million for an AstroScience Center museum, planetarium and research telescope that would make the stars an Adirondack destination in their own right.
The state has plans for a rail trail and scenic railroad that will meet in Tupper Lake, and McGowan said he can see the appeal of a multifaceted adventure that would include riding a bike or train by day, and seeing stars by night. Viewing is good because of Tupper’s relatively high elevation at 1,550 feet above sea level, but also because the village has made a concerted effort to keep artificial lighting from intruding into the skyline.
That’s a battle that’s playing out in other parts of the park, where, to contradict rocker Bruce Springsteen, there is no longer a darkness on the edge of town. But there is no concerted effort to regulate the park’s lighting.
Like many kids, photographer Carl Heilman II became enchanted with the night skies while lying on his back on the grass in his boyhood home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The deal was sealed one evening when his dad, a physics and astronomy teacher, called him to see a rare southern sojourn of the aurora borealis.
Today, Heilman frequently turns his attention to the heavens for inspiration. “Anyone who doesn’t look up at the night sky in the Adirondacks is definitely missing an experience,” he said.
But even in the mountains, light is finding its way in. Shooting the aurora is trickier because of the lights of Montreal, Heilman said. And lonely mountaintops that could once be counted on to offer broad horizons fading to black in the evenings now are marred by the telltale glow of New York’s Capital Region to the south. Thankfully, the sky overhead still offers pristine nighttime viewing, Heilman said.
At the Norton Cemetery in Keene, Dave Craig—he bills himself as The Neophyte Astronomer, but don’t be fooled—keeps one eye on the stars and one eye on encroaching light pollution, some attributable to development and some attributable to poorly chosen commercial and street lighting.
Light is complex. Of the electromagnetic radiation that is visible to us, red has the longest wavelengths, violet the shortest, packing the most energy.
Depending on its wavelength, light can have different colors and different degrees of warmth that make it suitable or unsuitable for different purposes. Mercury vapor lights, for example, were an intense white with a blue-green tint that made them great for warehouses filled with tiny parts, but awful for department stores, because their effect on human skin made shoppers look as if they were on the set of a zombie film.
Light waves have other characteristics, too. More energetic light waves, such as blue, are bigger sources of light pollution because they are more readily “scattered,” or reflected, into the atmosphere, Craig said.
Blue light, predominant in computer screens, televisions and cell phones, is also particularly disruptive of sleep patterns, which is why insomniacs are told to avoid electronics a couple of hours before bed.
Increasingly, to save on their electric bills, towns are trading in vapor lights for more efficient LEDs, which are monochromatic, meaning their narrow range of wavelengths results in a single color—which is why in the early days of LEDs that formed numerals on calculators and clock radios, the light was always red. Today, LEDs used in street lights appear to be pure white, except they’re really not. They’re blue. Our eyes are tricked by a chemical coating on the light source known as the phosphor, which lengthens some of the wavelengths into yellow. Yellow combined with the blue makes white. And it’s the blue that is most damaging to dark skies.
“Blue scatters widely in the atmosphere; it’s just the nature of light and the chemical composition of our atmosphere,” Craig said. “This is exactly why the daytime sky is blue. As the sun sets, sunlight comes from a lower angle and must travel through more air. Eventually, much of the blue is scattered elsewhere and what remains is reddish.
“That’s why sunsets appear red-orange, and that’s why our biology has adapted to expect red light as the day winds down.”
The natural rhythms that tell us it’s time for sleep apply across the ecology of all the planet’s creatures. “Artificial lighting can have bad ecological effects, disrupting movement patterns of insects and birds, among other harms,” said John Davis, co-founder of the Wildlands Network.
Darkness, which has protected prey animals from time immemorial, is in many areas slipping away. Birds that depend on starlight for navigation can be thrown dangerously off their traditional migratory paths, and anyone with a porch light knows the dizzying effects it has on insects.
“Near cities, cloudy skies are now hundreds, or even thousands of times brighter than they were 200 years ago,” wrote research scientist Christopher Kyba for the International Dark-Sky Association. “We are only beginning to learn what a drastic effect this has had on nocturnal ecology.”
Amy Bedard, librarian for the Miner Institute in Chazy, said she has noticed changes in lighting since her interest in the stars began in earnest after viewing the aurora in 2003. “I’ve always been fascinated with the night skies,” she said. “It’s still pretty good, certainly, but not as good as it used to be.”
An accomplished amateur photographer, Bedard plots out dark spots on her Google map, but those spots keep changing as trees grow taller and light encroaches. Technology, though, has also made stargazing easier—and something else that’s changed over the years is the number of people, particularly women, who have taken up photography and astronomy, which tend to go hand-in-hand.
Bedard taught herself to use the manual settings on her camera, and learned the stars from apps that identify heavenly bodies. When her friends started showing interest as well, she developed an informal club, and now has 150 people in her photography group.
“I’m just a lay person,” she said, “but if I know something I share it.”
Groups and individuals of all experience levels are often enticed to take in the night skies during celestial events, such as meteor showers or, this summer, by Comet NEOWISE, which is in our neighborhood once every 6,000 years.
In the Norton Cemetery in July, Craig and State University of New York at Plattsburgh professor Kevin O’Neill were setting up their telescopes on an evening that the comet was going to be photobombed by the International Space Station, zipping within a couple of degrees of NEOWISE at 5 miles a second. The event hadn’t been aggressively advertised, but Keene is a small town, and a goodly handful of cars lined up alongside the tombstones.
The two telescopes were sighted in by locking on two of the first stars to show up in the night sky: the red giant Arcturus, and the brilliant Vega, which in two more visits from NEOWISE to our solar system—about another 12,000 years—will have taken the place of Polaris as our North Star.
After the instruments have their base coordinates they can, with the hum of their gears, track down anything in the sky. For first-timers, O’Neill said Jupiter and Saturn steal the show, the rings and moons coming clearly into focus.
Those planets impressed Rebecca Stump and her fiance Steve Topper of Philadelphia, who had climbed Giant, Cascade and Porter mountains earlier in the day and were still up for a nighttime experience. Topper, who had heard about quality Adirondack stargazing, said he saw Craig’s Neophyte Astronomer website “by happenstance,” and decided to check out the cemetery.
From directly overhead, the Milky Way billowed with a fog of stars a trillion strong. Coming up over the horizon was the Andromeda galaxy with a trillion more. (The two galaxies will collide one of these eons.) Venus and Jupiter glittered like gemstones and NEOWISE glowed as a soft white smudge. “We just don’t see this stuff at home,” Stump said.
“To me,” Craig said, “seeing these things and getting a sense of their distances drives home how insignificant are our petty squabbles here on Earth.”