Installment on Bay Bridge Fails to Shine Light on Potential Damage

Georgia Reid

Visible from the Embarcadero, Leo Villareal's exhibit titled The Bay Lights illuminate the water below.

Georgia Reid

In the past month, many San Francisco residents and visitors have likely noticed the mesmerizing, expansive light show on the Bay Bridge that is visible from shore, but few may be aware of the reason behind the development and of potential repercussions.
 
Beginning March 5, 2013,  the light exhibition titled The Bay Lights, spanning the Northern face of the Bay Bridge, will be lit for seven hours every night for a period of two years as a tribute to the 75th Anniversary of the Bridge’s existence. The project, headed by Leo Villareal, a New York based light artist responsible for the design and management of the piece, has been in commission for two years already – after the offer was brought about back in 2010.
 
Some of Villareal’s past light sculptures, displayed on his personal website, have been installed in urban settings throughout the country, lighting up walkways, city parks, and contemporary art galleries. Using individually programmable LED lights engineered into specialized sculptures and arrangements, he programs light patterns using an algorithm, resulting in a constant flux of unique sequences.
 
To successfully instrument the artistic illumination of the Bay Bridge, Villareal and his team have had to be innovative with the installation of and accessibility to control the lights. In order to view the piece as he works, Villareal programs from shore, communicating wirelessly with control systems installed on the bridge.
 
Scheduled installation has taken place for over a hundred nights, causing lane closure during work times, between the hours of 11pm and 5am. Raised in baskets, workers have installed strings of white LED lights using industrial zip ties to the vertical suspension cables, with a total of 25,000 individual light nodes, each spaced a foot apart. In compliance with the terms of installment set by CalTrans, each individual node is directed outward on the side of the cables facing the Bay, so as not to impact traffic flow and driver safety.
 
While the light installment may serve to “unleash all sorts of creativity around the Bay Area”, as Villareal commented in an expository video on the project’s page, there are also potential, and possibly overlooked, consequences of the light show, with respect to the chemical balance of the San Francisco Bay’s atmosphere.
 
Vehicle emissions release a number of compounds into the air, including single and double (mono- or di-) forms of nitrate oxide, collectively represented as NOx. Another nitrate radical, NO3, is an important natural factor in combating the build-up of smog, as it neutralizes many of the NOx molecules during the night, and helps to cleanse the atmosphere of harmful chemicals.
 
NO3 is broken apart during the day by wavelengths of red light from the sun into NO2 and O (most often). At night the two separate molecules are able to recombine into NO3, and continue to remove more harmful compounds from the air that were released during the day.
 
However, light pollution at night hinders the beneficial night-time neutralization of nitrogen oxides. Especially in heavily urban areas, such as the city of San Francisco, light pollution at night has a negative impact on smog levels in the daytime.
 
A study presented by scientists in 2010 at an AGU (American Geophysical Union) meeting in San Francisco, measured the actinic flux in Los Angeles compared to rural Colorado. They found that the urban glow emitted at night can be up to 25 times stronger than the light of a full moon, causing unnatural disturbance to the atmosphere’s nightly cleansing process.
 
Using photochemical models to plug in data, Harald Stark, of the NOAA’s Earth System Laboratory, found that city light emissions were responsible for the interruption of nitrate radicals from neutralizing harmful chemicals deposited by vehicle emissions, in some cases causing the destruction of 7% of expected and healthy night-time amounts of NO3s. In turn, the decreased night levels of NO3s can result in daytime levels of NOx being up to 5% higher than they naturally would be.
 
These detections, specific to L.A. but applicable to all major cities, support the claim that excessive light pollution at night may indeed be detrimental to a healthy atmosphere, and means that the more light pollution in the Bay Area at night, the greater amount of smog present during the day.
 
And though LED lights are arguably the most efficient type of light bulb yet, high-power white LED’s emit harsh light, still capable of breaking down advantageous atmospheric molecules such as NO3.
 
I only hope that along with the great care that has been invested in making the light show reality, equally extensive thought has been taken to consider the impact of another 25,000 bulbs shining into our night sky.

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10 Responses to “Installment on Bay Bridge Fails to Shine Light on Potential Damage”

  1. Virsies on February 18th, 2013 8:26 pm

    Californians pride ourselves as being the most environmentally friendly state in America, so how could we let this happen? We should be taking every possible step to keep our environment in balance, not destroy it. If people want to go see a light show, they can go to a rave or something, but not having the lights is a small price to pay to do what’s right for the environment. Besides, the money that they’re putting into this could probably have been used for something more important like education.

    Tyler Finn Reply:

    I will point out that the project was funded by private donors ($5.7m has been raised of the expected $8m cost through 2015), so it’s not like the project is being funded by the taxpayers. In addition, the project is expected to add about $100m to the local economy. The environmental concerns, however, are something to worry about.

  2. RBK on March 6th, 2013 7:14 pm

    To Tyler Finn: The question of how the project is funded is completely irrelevant to the point of this article.

    I had quite a tough time in my attempts to find & read the environmental impact report for the project, which began to make me wonder what someone was trying to hide. I finally received the following from J. Goodwin at MTC (JGoodwin@mtc.ca.gov):
    “Thank you for your message about environmental impact reports for The Bay Lights project. An environmental filing fee for the “Temporary Bay Bridge Lights Project” was registered with the California Department of Fish and Game (Document No. 418273) and a Notice of Exemption (No. 270810) filed with the San Francisco County Clerk-Recorder on June 8, 2012.
    The project received its exempt status as a Categorical Exemption, Class 1: Section 15301. This Class 1 exemption was made on the basis of: “Operation, repair, maintenance or minor alterations to a public facility involving no or negligible expansion of use,” with the finding that “The project, installation of temporary lights on the Bay Bridge, involves no expansion of use, will not result in significant effects on the environment due to unusual circumstances, nor will it result in a cumulative impact. The project will not result in a traffic safety impact, damage to scenic resources, cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historic resource, or affect sensitive-species habitat; and the site is not located on a documented hazardous waste site.”

    This does not make me feel any better! It only tells me that this project was actually deemed EXEMPT from having to go thru the normal environmental impact processes that all other large-scale projects must normally go thru. Just makes it look all the more like things are not right. This sentence in particular alarms me: “The project […] will not result in significant effects on the environment due to unusual circumstances, nor will it result in a cumulative impact.”

    How can this possibly be determined WITHOUT doing an environmental impact? How much more “unusual” do circumstances have to be, besides that of having an enormous amount of artificial light flooding an environmentally sensitive area thru the night? Seems to me like someone is trying to pull a fast one & it makes me really angry that mostly everyone else is just standing around saying, “awww, such pretty lights.”!

    I really appreciate your article addressing potential environmental issues Ms Reid. And I’d like very much to find out more about this, if possible. Thanks so much for writing this.

    BB Reply:

    I’d like to thank both of you, Ms Reid for the article and RBK for this comment. As an environmental economist can’t tell you how happy I am to hear your voce of reason. At a fundraiser for this project (where I ended up not knowing what it is) I was called ‘crazy’ after stating that this is environmentally damaging project and I hope it won’t go through. Unfortunately it did! What I also don’t understand is why is contouring a bridge with lights called an ‘art’ project. I though it needs to be original to be called ‘art’.

    greid Reply:

    Thank you, RBK, for your expanded search for insight into the environmental impact of this project. (I did not notice these comments until just now, I’m afraid to say.) It’s very interesting that a grand-scale project like this one seems to skate by with minimal regulation (or so it seems); I presume it has something to do with the boost that the local economy will receive because of the tourist attraction element of the light sculpture. It frustrates me that that money is what most people seem to care all about!

    One of the elements of environmental impact I looked heavily into but didn’t find much concrete evidence on, is the interruption of bird migration patterns. I’m determined to keep searching, though; within an ecosystem as delicate and diverse as that of the Bay, the light pollution must have at least some tangible negative effects, which have yet to be revealed.

    It will be interesting to see, too, if this project really does end up being temporary, unlike the string of lights hung on the cables for the 50th Anniversary, which became permanent.

    Thank you, both RBK and BB, for your comments!

    amacfarlane Reply:

    This is one my favorite articles we have had on the site this year, and it is very fitting that you wrote it, Georgia. The Bay Bridge light project has really bothered me since it was conceived as I have found it tragically wasteful in a time where the opposite efforts are imperative, for the future of so much that we care about. I believe, at least, that the project is intended to be only until March of 2015. But, in my humble opinion this is three years too many. The lights are certainly rather pretty, and I absolutely understand the allure, but the era for such endeavors has passed, if it ever existed at all. You are really a wonderful person, Georgia; keep writing, it will do some good in the world.

  3. zpacalin on March 8th, 2013 8:31 pm

    perhaps is my position as one not directly facing the job market/economy (as a student), but i really think we as a state need to rank the environment higher on our list of priorities. no economic steps we take will help us if we destroy our home in the process

  4. sviswanathan on March 19th, 2013 10:50 pm

    These lights and the ceremony is truly so beautiful and highlights the central beauty of our city so well. However, I think it is also important to always consider the environmental impacts of such projects. The beauty of which is always looked over the long term impacts for the environment. Great job highighting the impacts of such a project Georgia, without this I would have never known!

  5. BB on March 26th, 2013 10:21 pm

    It’s sad this is happening in SF and Cali who pride itself for its environmental awareness. 75% of world’s pollution comes from electric power. In SF apparently we live in a complete scientific darkness, while staring at this great ‘art project’ (pollution aside, which part of it is art anyway?)

  6. Osvaldo on June 6th, 2013 2:40 am

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