Could Plans to Minimize Light Pollution Actually Lead to a Loss of Dark Skies?

New LED lights are planned for a section of the ring road near the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory.

The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, a University of Calgary research facility, is just southwest of the city near Priddis.

Photograph by Alan Dyer


Gazing at distant stars from the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory just south of the city is an experience many Calgarians treasure. Some worry, however, that the stars could lose their lustre if the provincial government goes forward with a plan to install new LED lights along a nearby section of the ring road. 

In February, 2017, Phil Langill, director of the observatory, which is run by the University of Calgary, spoke with representatives from the Province about the project. Though he was initially disappointed that he was merely being informed of plans at that time (rather than consulted), Langill remained hopeful. The implementation of LED lighting with a cone-shaped design to reduce ambient light seemed, at the time, to be the best practice. “A year ago, the jury was still out on the benefits of LED lights from the perspective of light pollution,” says Langill. 

However, new information has emerged since then, which puts the Province’s plan in a new light. A four-year global study by the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences found that the amount of light coming from the earth’s surface grew by two per cent per year from 2012 to 2016 — an increase caused in part by increased adoption of LED lighting. Langill explains that the blue LED lights proposed for the ring road cause the pupils of the eye to constrict more than other lights, so the intensity of the lights has to be increased to compensate. This, in turn, leads to more of what Langill calls “second-hand light” entering the atmosphere and causing light pollution, which makes it harder to see stars at night. “Now, we know that the cut-off feature, which is a plus, is being drowned out by the intensity of the blue light,” he says. “The people that designed the lights for the ring road, [did so] not knowing this.

“Now I would like them to reconsider their design.”

The potential of losing dark skies has prompted self-professed “tree-hugger” Gord Hayes to launch a petition on asking both the Province and City to reconsider their approach. Hayes says the proposed lighting, in addition to increasing light pollution, is not as cost-effective as other options, will negatively impact wildlife and ignores dark-sky bylaws adopted by the municipality. Even though the petition counted nearly 2,600 signatures as of this past April, Hayes says the Province doesn’t consider the online petition valid. “They basically said that  doesn’t send them any information on [whether] the people are actually people, therefore they do not pay attention to” 

Adam Johnson, communications advisor with Alberta Transportation, says that the current lighting design has gone through a number of reviews and that the Southwest Calgary Ring Road has implemented a variety of features to minimize light pollution, including designs that avoid misdirected light, lower-temperature LEDs that minimize blue light and 15-metre poles to minimize the light spreading. “Based on consultation with industry specialists, Alberta Transportation follows national guidelines for the design of roadway lighting,” says Johnson. “Designing the lighting to meet the national standard ensures that the street lighting is at adequate level and can reduce motor-vehicle collisions, while also providing comfort for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.”

But critics like Hayes aren’t satisfied with the Province’s measures, saying they don’t go far enough, especially considering what he believes is at risk for future generations. “I’ve got a grandson, and I’d like him to be able to experience the world as I saw it,” Hayes says. “And it isn’t just my kid; it’s everybody’s kid.”


Photograph by Alan Dyer

Public stargazing event at the RAO.


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This article appears in the July 2018 issue of Avenue Calgary. Subscribe here.