Harpswell is known for its iconic views of sea and shore. North, south, east or west, spin the compass and you’ll find scenes of great natural beauty all around.
Well, here’s another direction to look and see something amazing.
The night sky in Harpswell is one of the town’s treasures, dotted with planets, stars and constellations clearly visible to the naked eye. But like many of Harpswell’s natural resources, the night sky is under pressure from human development and encroaching light pollution, and action is needed to preserve it for future generations.
“We need to elevate the profile of this resource,” said Robert Burgess, of Brunswick, president of the Southern Maine Astronomers Association (southernmaineastronomers.org). “The night sky is so important in the evolution of Homo sapiens, our folklore, religions, planting and harvesting. It’s part of our heritage that is being lost and we need to do whatever we can to protect it.”
It’s hard to quantify how the night sky over Harpswell has changed, for example, in the 40 years since the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust was founded. More housing, and accompanying outdoor lighting, has definitely had an impact, Burgess said. The horizon glow from Portland is more noticeable, but nearby light pollution sources like the Brunswick Naval Air Station and the U.S. Navy fuel depot at Mitchell Field are now gone.
Around the world, Burgess said, light pollution measured by satellite imagery is estimated to be increasing by at least 8% to 9% a year. “There are ecological implications impacting all kinds of creatures because of this,” he added. “People just don’t get it about light — yet.”
Because of its vast wilderness and relatively low human population, Maine remains a haven for stargazers. The International Dark-Sky Association has designated the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument an “International Dark Sky Sanctuary,” one of only 13 on the planet.
The Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine Woods property in the 100-Mile Wilderness has been recognized as an “International Dark Sky Park” by the organization, and the view of the Milky Way from Acadia National Park is protected, in part, by a light pollution ordinance mandating “night-sky friendly” outdoor lighting on new construction in Bar Harbor.
Harpswell is also taking action to reduce its impact on the night sky. The town recently installed 144 LED streetlights with a “correlated color temperature” of 2200 Kelvin, similar to the old lights, but lower than most LED streetlights. Harpswell is the first town in Maine to use these lights, according to Mark Carter, of RealTerm Energy, the company that installed the cobra head-style figures on existing utility poles.
Howie Marshall, of Harpswell, a member of the Southern Maine Astronomers Association, helped to facilitate the streetlight project as a member of the town’s Energy and Technology Committee.
“Some people who move here from the city say, ‘It’s too dark here! We need streetlights,'” he said. “The Milky Way is so much more visible here than in Boston, where we used to live. Our visitors are amazed at the night sky.”
Harpswell Selectman David Chipman said town ordinances regarding light pollution are limited.
“The only lighting ordinance that we have is in regard to the Marine Business District at Mitchell Field,” he explained. “It describes the brightness and flare-out of lighting used on commercial buildings at the site.
“Our streetlight policy regulates the placement and use of streetlights. We removed quite a few streetlights after we developed the policy a number of years ago and even more during the recent round of replacements with LEDs, which direct their light in a more downward manner and use a light spectrum that is more night-creature friendly.”
Burgess and Marshall said there are plenty of steps Harpswell residents can take to limit their light-polluting footprint.
“Courtesy for your neighbors is probably the most important thing to keep in mind,” said Burgess. For example, outdoor lights should be directed down and used only when needed, perhaps with motion sensors.
The International Dark-Sky Association website (darksky.org) has a number of consumer tips and a listing of dark-sky-friendly lighting fixtures with its seal of approval.
Burgess said it’s vital for Harpswell residents to get involved to help protect one of the town’s great natural resources.
“If this was a matter of sound or water, there would be no question about its importance,” Burgess said. “Clearly, the night sky is part of our cultural heritage. Once it’s gone, it’s hard, if not impossible, to get it back.”
This article was written as part of a series for the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s 40th anniversary in 2023. For more information, go to tinyurl.com/hhlt-40th.
This article is part of “Development and the Harpswell Environment,” a Harpswell Anchor special report.