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Artificial lights do worse than just ruin the view

U of M student honoured for defending the darkness

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/7/2011 (2229 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Dark Sky Defender could be the title of the next summer superhero blockbuster.

It would sure look nifty on a resumé.

Jennifer West, shown in the Ewen Campus Observatory at the University of Manitoba , won the top Dark Sky Defender award in the student category for her videos.


Jennifer West, shown in the Ewen Campus Observatory at the University of Manitoba , won the top Dark Sky Defender award in the student category for her videos.

And it's especially impressive, though no less mysterious, when you're talking about Jennifer West, a University of Manitoba student who is this year's top student-category Dark Sky Defender on the planet.

This is serious stuff, said West, a PhD student in astrophysics and a sessional lecturer at the University of Manitoba.

West received her award in New York City recently from the International Dark Sky Association, a worldwide group of academics in fields as diverse as the environment, education, biology, medicine and astrophysics.

Humans are threatening to cover the entire globe with artificial light, West explained in her office next door to the U of M's planetarium, and we're only now beginning to understand the costs.

It's not just being unable to see the stars from a backyard in Winnipeg, said West, though that's part of it.

Birds stop migrating and start crashing into buildings when buildings are flooded by artificial light. Sea turtles don't reach spawning grounds when they're overwhelmed by unnatural light. Frogs need darkness to sound their mating calls.

And there's research, said West, showing the effects on people of sleeping in light-filled environments, including emerging evidence of higher rates of cancer.

"Excessive lighting obviously interferes," said West, a graduate of the former Silver Heights Collegiate. "If we can't see the stars, birds can't see them to migrate."

West's award came about because of two videos, one called Our Vanishing Night, a series of beautiful and startling images in which West asks: "What happens when all the dark places are gone?"

West shot many of the images in the Whiteshell, where she leads an annual week-long astronomy expedition by canoe later this month into the heart of the Mantario Trail, far from artificial light.

Her second video examined lighting on the U of M campus -- bright, constant and most of it directed at the sky.

Many street lights light up the sky, she said: "There's better lighting solutions than the ones currently used."

Her video shows Bison Drive brightly lit on a winter's eve, the sky blotted out by artificial light. Pan to the adjacent SmartPark, where lights using far less energy direct their light entirely down to where people walk and drive, and above is a star-filled sky.

"It's quite a dramatic difference," said West.

Some of Canada's national parks are establishing dark-sky areas and releasing wildlife that needs dark nights to thrive, she said.

West is enthusiastic about outreach work, and expects some form of teaching is in her future.

Her PhD thesis will be on computer models of supernova remnants, but her ongoing passion is convincing the rest of us not to be afraid of the dark -- indeed, to embrace it and look up, look way up.

Our Winnipeg is a feature profiling the hidden gems of our fair city. For more beautiful, quirky, or offbeat places you might not know about, please see the map below. If you've got one of your own to share, drop us a line at

Read more by Nick Martin.


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Updated on Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 4:13 PM CDT: Fixed cutline

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