Leelanau News and Events

Leelanau Has Some Of The Nation’s Most Vibrant Night Skies -- And Locals Want To Keep It That Way

By Craig Manning | April 9, 2021

When you look at the sky on a clear night, can you still see the stars? Being surrounded by water, the Leelanau Peninsula is enveloped in a near-total darkness, which makes it a haven for stargazing. Yet in approximately 80 percent of the United States, the Milky Way is no longer visible at night due to pervasive light pollution.

In northern Michigan — and particularly across Leelanau County — a group of locals is taking a stand to preserve its night skies.

This is International Dark Sky Week (April 5-12), the “holiday” of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), an organization that exists to fight light pollution and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting. One of the founding members of the IDA is actually right here in northern Michigan: Dr. Jerry Dobek, the head of the sciences and astronomy departments at Northwestern Michigan College, was there in Tucson, Arizona in 1988 when the organization first took form.

Dobek was doing graduate work at the University of Arizona’s Kitt Peak National Observatory where long-time director David Crawford had just retired. Dobek, Crawford, and Tim Hunter — a fellow professor and amateur astronomer who led the Tucson Amateur Astronomical Association — got to talking about light pollution, its effects on astronomy and stargazing, and how the problem might be curbed. Those conversations led to the formation of the IDA.

In the years since, Dobek has authored more than 50 exterior lighting ordinances in Michigan alone, along with others in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Australia, and the United Kingdom. While he says there is a common misconception that light pollution can only be combatted by turning out the lights, Dobek’s ordinances focus instead on factors such as the brightness, color, and direction of the lights.

According to advocates like Dobek, dark sky friendly lighting protects circadian rhythms essential for human health, and allows for the natural nocturnal habits of wildlife, including birds that hunt or migrate at night. It also enhances visibility — glare from bright, unshielded lights actually decreases safety as it constricts the pupils, making it more difficult for eyes to adjust to low-light conditions.

Now, from Empire to Northport, numerous townships and villages in the county are taking a cue from Dobek’s work. Those efforts are led in part by Leelanau Energy, a nonprofit focused primarily on advocating for the adoption of renewable energy sources throughout Leelanau Peninsula. Leelanau Energy started a Dark Sky Initiative with the goal of “preserving the natural night sky while promoting human health and protecting the environment.”

Its newly launched website states, “We are concerned that due to increasing nighttime light pollution, northern Michigan is another area at risk of losing our ability to see a clear, dark sky.”

“I think that, right now, our task is two-pronged,” says Anne Harper, a member of the Leelanau Energy Dark Sky Committee (LEDSC). “One is to try to work with property owners — homeowners and business owners — to encourage them to understand what is good lighting and what is unnecessary lighting. The other is to work with the municipal governments – the villages and townships – to understand what their role is with their street lighting.”

Street lighting, Harper says, is the biggest night sky issue in the county. That’s in part because Consumers Energy is in the midst of a 10-year project to replace the county’s streetlamp fixtures, swapping out decades-old high-pressure sodium lights for new LED lighting. It makes sense: LED are more efficient, which will save money for local villages and townships and provide environmental benefits. The trade-off? LED lights are significantly brighter than their predecessors, which has ignited conversations about light pollution and excess brightness for people with homes or property in the villages.

The LEDSC is lobbying for several solutions. One is to reduce the kelvin rating of local street lighting (white and blue light having higher kelvin ratings than “warmer” yellow or orange light). Another is to use shields to direct the flow of light, so that it is angled toward the street or sidewalk, rather than projecting light outward or illuminating the sky. A third: Identify areas where streetlights are no longer needed, so that they might be removed.

Harper says Consumers Energy is working with Leelanau communities to find a compromise. According to Roger Morgenstern, a senior public information director for Consumers Energy who handles the west Michigan territory, the most likely outcome for Leelanau County is the installation of shields to reduce the outward spread and glare of LED lighting.

“We’re actually in the process right now of getting some bids on different types of shields that we might be able to use,” Morgenstern tells the Leelanau Ticker. “We’re also looking at, perhaps, a lower-wattage LED. But the LED lighting [we’re using] is certified for night sky use. It’s more a matter of the direction of some of the LED maybe being too direct. So we are looking at shields.”

Morgenstern says the company has provided communities in Leelanau with maps of their local streetlights and — in the case of Leland Township — officials have identified lights in spots where they are no longer necessary. Harper notes Leland Township set aside some dollars in its budget to have Consumers Energy soon remove those streetlamps.

Ultimately, Dobek says the goal should be to reduce glare produced by outdoor night lighting. Glare not only makes it harder to see the night sky, but is also “unsafe at any illumination level,” according to Dobek. A familiar example? Seeing another car’s bright headlights on the road, which can cause temporary visual impairment while you are driving. Similarly, Dobek says the glare of bright streetlamps, billboards, buildings, or other sources can increase the contrast between light and dark areas, making it harder for the eyes to adjust and see potential dangers.

Dobek sees taking action against light pollution as a “win-win-win scenario,” benefitting not just astronomers and stargazing enthusiasts, but also the environment, animals whose behaviors and habitats have been impacted by the spread of artificial night lighting, and people who want safe environments to drive, walk, shop, and live.

“International Dark Sky Week is a time for people to take a look up,” Dobek says. “Take a walk around outside [at night] and look to see where you can see areas of glare. Maybe [fixing that issue] is as simple as putting a shield on the fixture. If we did that just a little bit more, we could restore the natural beauty of the nighttime sky. That’s the thing about light pollution: it’s easily recoverable. And as we recover it, everybody wins.”

Photo: The vivid night sky as seen from Northport’s Woolsey Memorial Airport, by nature photographer Sheen Watkins. Find her on Instagram.  

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