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Cities try to go dark for Earth Hour

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The Sydney Opera House before and after it went dark for the inaugural Earth Hour in Australia last March. (Photo by Grant Turner/Fairfax Photos; Courtesy of WWF Australia)

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Sydney's Harbour Bridge after the lights went off for Earth Hour on March 31, 2007. (Photo by Michael Bowers/Fairfax Photos; Courtesy of WWF Australia)

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The Sydney Harbour Bridge glittering brightly before lights out for Earth Hour in March 2007 (Photo by Michael Bowers/Fairfax Photos; Courtesy of WWF Australia)

Almost every night for the last 57 years the thundering avalanche of water cascading over Niagara Falls has turned into a 180-foot-high lightshow at dusk, as high-powered spotlights shine a rainbow of colors on the famous landmark.

But on March 29, the mighty Horseshoe Falls will go dark. “This never happens,” said Joel Noden, excecutive director of Revenue Operations at the Niagara Parks Commission. But for one hour that night, the switches controlling 21 spotlights, each with a 250-million-candlepower brilliance, will stay in the off position.

Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, and its twin city across the border in New York, are just two of the hundreds of communities planning to mark the first international Earth Hour on March 29, when millions of people around the world will turn off their lights between 8 and 9 p.m. local time as a symbolic demonstration against global warming.

Organized by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour began last March as a local awareness event in Sydney, Australia. Two million residents and 2,000 businesses shut off their lights, and the normally glittering Sydney Harbour was strikingly dark.

“We could do something amazing if we could just get it up and running,” said Andy Ridley from his office in Sydney, remembering the concept behind last year’s experimental event. Now executive director for the worldwide Earth Hour, Ridley said the event has “gone much bigger than we thought it would.”

As the exercise expands from Sydney around the world to cities including Bangkok, Tel Aviv and Copenhagen, eight major North American cities have officially signed on to power down at least some of their skylines: Chicago, Phoenix, Atlanta, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa.

Though the idea of turning out the lights may seem simple, managers of facilities charged with making sure the right lights go off at the right time are doing a lot of work to prepare. “It’s not an easy process,” said Shauna Coffey, manager of sustainability projects for the Mirvac Group in Sydney, which shut off the lights in many of the office towers, hotels and construction sites under its management during last year’s Earth Hour.

The actual technology of turning off the lights in offices and hotels varies, depending on the age of the building, she said. Many newer buildings have sophisticated digital lighting control systems, where the person in charge can “log in” and turn various banks of lights off from a computer at a desk or even at home. But older buildings often have on-site switchboards, using timers that control different sets of lights. For Earth Hour, engineers for those types of buildings have to manually reset the individual timers.

Earth Hour organizers know that shutting off the lights in major city centers is a big deal, and have been working with partner cities to identify the landmarks whose absence of lights will be most noticeable.

In Chicago, one signature building would be the Sears Tower, the tallest in the U.S. and, with antenna lighting reaching 1,750 feet, a prominent feature in Chicago’s nightscape. During Earth Hour its roof will go dark, said Sears Tower general manager Thomas Dempsey, but just how dark the building underneath can go is not fully within his control. “We simply have to make as dramatic an impression as we can,” he said.

Dempsey said that although he has asked each of the tower’s 150 broadcast and office tenants to shut off as much interior lighting as possible, safety standards demand that lobbies and common areas have a minimum amount of visibility. Nevertheless, he said, “we expect it to be very dim.”

For other landmark structures, the lights-off impact is even more restricted. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge will take part in Earth Hour, but owing to reasons of traffic safety, operators can switch off only the purely decorative 400-watt lights on the bridge’s two towers. “All the other lights are deemed critical and necessary for the safety of the bridge,” said Mary Currie, public affairs director for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

That’s fine with Earth Hour organizers, who emphasize that safety has to come first. The important thing, said Leslie Aun, vice president of communications for the U.S. World Wildlife Fund, is that people are showing a united front against global warming. “Symbols do mean a lot,” she said.

Although the symbolism of big-city skyline lights all powering down at once may be dramatic, smaller communities are also dealing with the the logistics of going dark. In Homer Glen, Ill., a village of about 25,000 about 30 miles southwest of Chicago, Debra Norvil and three fellow Wildlife Fund volunteers have visited more than 100 small businesses, chain stores and restaurants, asking them to turn off their lights on March 29.

Even in a small town, however, there are practical issues to be considered, such a gas station that can’t turn its sign off without shutting off the electricity to the pump lights that show motorists how much fuel they’re getting.

A “light pollution” activist for seven years, Norvil, 51, still hopes most of Homer Glen’s stores and restaurants will participate. “I would love to see the signs go dark because that means they’re paying attention,” she said.

Large or small, businesses have a reason to pay attention, property managers say, because turning off the lights is good for both the environment and the company bottom line. “Lighting is probably the biggest user of electricity in a commercial building,” said Michael Hoffer, senior property manager for Cousins Properties in Atlanta.

His building, Atlanta’s 55-story Bank of America tower, the tallest in the city, will turn off its brightly lit rooftop pyramid for Earth Hour. “It literally is a flip of the switch,” said Hoffer. More time-consuming is to make sure that as many office lights as possible throughout the building also go off. On the critical day, Hoffer said, a team of four engineers will have to spend about 20 to 30 minutes on each floor, checking to make sure office workers didn’t leave the lights on when they left for the weekend.

And the importance of simply turning off the lights when you’re not using them is really the main point of the exercise, organizers say. Even the Niagara Falls lightshow, watched by millions of tourists every year, always turns off at midnight, said Noden at the Niagara Parks Commission. Like everyone else, he said, “We don’t go to bed with the lights on.”

E-mail: nki2101@columbia.edu