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How to Do Your Own Lights Out Challenge

The Mackinac Bridge at twilight with colored lights that are reflecting in the water.
The Mackinac Bridge Authority agreed to turn off the bridge's lights for the Lights Out Challenge. This photo shows the bridge with the lights on. The photo below show it with the lights off. Photo by Eric Lanning (CC).

By Mary Stewart Adams

“If you can’t win, make the fellow ahead of you break the record.”

Every year in August, the Perseid Meteor Shower comes to its peak of activity, and all over Northern Michigan, the lights go out so the stars can shine more brilliantly. Spearheaded by Emmet County’s Headlands property, an International Dark Sky Park designated by the International Dark Sky Association in 2011, the annual “Lights Out” challenge draws thousands of enthusiastic visitors to the area, for picnics, stargazing, and friendly, community-wide competitions.

The Mackinaw Bridge in Michigan with its lights off, thanks to the Bridge Authority, for the annual Lights Off Challenge.
The Mackinaw Bridge in Michigan with its lights off – thanks to the Bridge Authority – for the annual Lights Off Challenge.

“We started the event as soon as we achieved international dark sky designation so that we could raise awareness about why advocating for natural darkness matters so much environmentally, in management of energy resources, in human health, and in quality of life issues,” said Mary Stewart Adams, Program Director for the Headlands International Dark Sky Park. “In Michigan, we have water everywhere, so many of our communities face one another across the water – both small and large bodies. This is an easy set-up, then, for friendly competitions, because folks can gather on opposite shores and watch the lights go out across the way, and then lean back to watch brilliant skies overhead.”

And though the water is an advantage to the competition, Adams explained that communities that don’t enjoy the same geographical features are not inhibited from undertaking the same kind of activity.

How to Do Your Own Lights Out Challenge

Following are a list of recommended activities for hosting your own community-wide Lights Out Challenge:

  • Identify area stakeholders that have easy community access portals and invite them to help get the word out, such as Chambers of Commerce, Convention and Visitors Bureaus, local newspapers, transportation authorities, libraries, radio and television stations, business owners, local municipalities, including cities and townships.
  • Plan your event to coincide with celestial phenomena and identify lines of demarcation between communities (e.g., in Northern Michigan, we challenge the communities of Mackinaw City and St Ignace across the Straits of Mackinac from one another, and Petoskey and Harbor Springs, across the Little Traverse Bay from one another, to see who can get darkest from 10:30-11:30 p.m. the night of the Perseid Meteor Shower each year).
  • Establish individuals/teams to do sky quality meter readings in the participating communities under typically-lit night skies. And then conduct the same sky quality meter readings during the “Lights Out” event. The communities that achieve the greater darkness relative to their starting measure
    lights out together
    ment win! For measuring the night sky, you can use the Sky Quality Meter app available for Apple devices
  • Market your challenge. The ideas are endless and include creating logos and pledge forms that individuals and businesses can display in their windows, t-shirts, buttons and the awards for winners (e.g., plaques or dedicated benches that can be conversation starters about dark skies or even having the losing town do a pancake breakfast for the winner). Here is a sample pledge form. See the sample logos above.
  • Make sure all materials include ready-to-use facts about why dark sky protection matters as well as information about viewing celestial phenomena once the lights are turned off.

“In Emmet County, we had fun with our pledge form, fashioning it after the American Constitution,”Adams explained.

Anticipation is high among visitors to the dark sky park on the night of the challenge, both because of the excitement around lights going out, and because of the promise of better views of the meteor shower. Local residents and business owners also get a kick out of challenging each other to ‘get darker’, gathering at specific sites around the community so they can get a view of what the competition is doing. “This year (2015) we had over 1,000 guests to the Headlands property, including families, amateur astronomers, photographers. We scheduled a food truck to be on site and presented a program on the science and mythology connected with the Perseid Meteor Shower as well as the myth of Perseus,” explained Adams. “It was a dramatic sky that night, with large thunderclouds to the south, not diminishing the view overhead, and providing a really interesting storytelling opportunity, given the classical mythology about Zeus as god of thunder and lightning, and as father of Perseus. We also caught a glimpse of the Northern Lights, so this year, everybody was a winner!”

“The thrill of such an experience can really inspire participants to take action in their own communities, after they’ve left our area. We work really hard to impress upon guests the steps they can take to effect positive change in outdoor lighting from their own areas. Because we are a popular resort area, there is a lot of awareness between communities about who’s doing what, and this kind of event, which draws so much attention from beyond our area, really tightens the bond between communities, and makes for some fun.”

To learn more about the Lights Out challenge, read our previous blog post on the topic.