Beam me up

The Space Needle's flashy light show gets panned by environmentalists and astronomers.

The Space Needle will be lighting the heavens to celebrate the New Year, but a lot of folks hope it's a once-in-a-millennium trick.

City regulators have approved a plan to aim an 85-million candlepower spotlight system on the Needle's roof straight up, creating a dramatic "needle on the needle" effect and making the futuristic structure look like a beacon to attract passing spaceships. The Space Needle Corporation, owners of the futuristic city icon, plan to turn on the beam of light over the New Year's weekend but have withdrawn an earlier request to use it up to 70 nights a year.

Although permission has been granted only for this one-time use of the beam, the lighting system is permanently installed, says Peter Beck, the corporation's chief financial officer: "There's no plan for it to come down." Instead, the millennium celebration will be used as a test run, with an application to the city for special events usage expected sometime next year. The beam is part of a new overall lighting plan for the Space Needle that cost more than $250,000. Seattle landmarks regulators have granted conceptual approval for the rest of the lighting plan (not including the beam).

Much of the opposition comes from stargazers across the world concerned about further light pollution. The glare produced by Seattle already creates a haze over the city when viewed from afar and keeps all but the brightest stars from being seen by urban dwellers. It's a major issue to professional and amateur astronomers, who have formed groups such as the International Dark-Sky Association to combat the trend. Many of the country's major astronomical observatories, built on what were originally the outskirts of urban areas, have been rendered useless by the approach of development and its accompanying light pollution.

Environmentalists are also upset by the proposal, as overlighted structures tend to disorient migratory birds, often leading to their deaths. According to a representative of the Seattle Audubon Society (which is opposing the beam proposal), 100 million birds are killed each year in collisions with structures.

Some merely think it's a dumb idea. Urging the city to "bag the beam," John Gilkison stated, "This sky beam idea for the Space Needle is just nuts." David Brodeur accused the Needle's owners of seeking to "turn a proud Seattle icon into a public nuisance."

The first two arguments, at least, have proven successful elsewhere. In Quebec, authorities rescinded their approval of powerful, roof-mounted spotlights on a casino after receiving complaints from residents up to 26 miles away. Just last month, California coastal regulators rejected a proposal for similar beams-into-the-sky on a Los Angeles harbor bridge, citing both light pollution and environmental concerns about birds in their decision.

Local resident Mark Lawler adds that the gaudy light show would simply distract from Seattle's natural beauty. "Seattle, even though it is a large city, still has much natural character," he writes. "The night sky is part of that character."

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