When people think about Lake Tahoe it’s often in regards to the wonderfully clear lake or the mountains that provide endless hours of fun via hiking, biking and skiing.
But what about the sky?
Look up on a moonless night and you can practically be transported to another world.
“At the lake and surrounding areas like Northstar if it’s a dark sky or crescent moon, you can see the Milky Way. In the Northern Hemisphere at our location if you look south in the summer, you look at Sagittarius, which is the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. It’s about 30,000 light years away,” boasted Tony Berendsen, outreach astronomer and owner of Tahoe Star Tours in Reno.
Even better—no telescope is necessary to see some of the 100 billion stars that comprise our galaxy.
“People in urban areas just don’t see it,” Berendsen said.
That’s because light pollution is blocking most everything else that exists outside Earth’s atmosphere.
Berendsen has been delighting Tahoe locals and tourists with knowledge of the night sky for decades. Many events are at Northstar ski resort, while this summer he has been bringing his telescopes and expertise closer to the South Shore at the new amphitheater at Spooner Lake.
Even though the South Shore with its casinos and large population is the brightest region in the basin, it’s still a spectacular place to look up and learn. Berendsen has given talks at Edgewood Tahoe Resort with little interference from artificial lights.
“One nice thing about Lake Tahoe is we don’t have a lot of outdoor lights pointed up at the sky,” Berendsen said. “We don’t have a big light dome that you get from cities. The biggest light dome you see in Lake Tahoe is from Reno, but it doesn’t interfere too much with the sky.”
The view of the night sky in the basin is kept rather pristine by various agencies that have a role in policies pertaining to light installations. It all starts with Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s dark sky lighting standards that have been on the books since 1980s.
“We’re working with a group of graduate students at UC Davis on climate smart code amendments that will include updates to our dark sky standards. Our hope is to bring our code in line with International Dark-Sky Association standards,” Jacob Stock, TRPA senior planner said.
As of January, the nonprofit had certified 201 dark sky places in the world. Not one is close to Tahoe. IDA is trying to eliminate light pollution because it negatively impacts animals, adds to climate change, and disconnects people from their natural environment.
Starting in spring 2024 South Lake Tahoe will retrofit 214 lights on Highway 50 with 2,200 Kelvin temperature fixtures that will comply with dark sky specifications. The city has insisted Caltrans when it installs pedestrian lighting on Highway 50 from Meeks to the Y that they be 2,200k and dark sky compliant.
El Dorado, Placer and Douglas counties all have rules about lights, but nothing pertaining to dark sky protocols. Washoe County didn’t divulge it’s policies.
Neither NDOT nor Caltrans have dark sky policies. Their priority is safety, but both transportation agencies have an eye toward limiting light pollution.
While Liberty Utilities, electrical provider on the California side, does not have a dark sky policy, it is in the process of replacing existing high pressure sodium lights with LEDs that are dark sky compliant. Nevada Energy, the utility on the Nevada side, didn’t respond to inquiries.
A study published in the journal Science Advances revealed 80 percent of the world lives where skies are polluted. The percentage increases to 99 percent for those in the United States and Europe.
That’s what makes Lake Tahoe’s skies even more special—the lack of light pollution make it part of the 1 percenters in a very good way.
Note: A version of this article first appeared in Tahoe In Depth.