For over 100 years, scientists from around the world have summited Mount Hamilton to sit inside a large, white dome and peer into the universe. From its faintest glimmers, they’ve learned stories of distant exploding stars and found entire solar systems just like our own.
But those dim cosmic messages might get a little harder to read.
On Wednesday night, the San Jose Airport Commission is meeting to discuss the proposed installation of two double-sided digital billboards along Highway 101 on Mineta San Jose International Airport property. Two screens are set to directly face the University of California’s famous Lick Observatory in the hillsides above San Jose, potentially overturning a decades-long city billboard ban and obscuring treasured scenes from the universe’s depths .
“We’re detecting new worlds from right here in Santa Clara County,” said Paul Lynam, a staff astronomer at the Lick Observatory. “Access to these facilities is very important to people and astronomers across the world. To lose those capabilities would be a travesty.”
For decades, San Jose and Santa Clara city commissioners have worked hand-in-hand with the UC Observatory system to mitigate light pollution — adopting special street lights and shielding covers to preserve the night sky. In 1985, San Jose officials placed a city-wide ban on constructing new billboards, citing the shining towers as unsightly and unnecessary distractions.
Residents and astronomers alike worry that the new billboard proposal may reverse this historic ban, opening the floodgates for additional night-brightening advertisements.
“Two billboards, will that cripple Lick Observatory? No. But it’s the nose of the camel in the tent,” said Matthew Shetrone, deputy director of the UC Observatories. “We don’t want to see the complexion of San Jose be changed into something that looks like Las Vegas.”
For astronomy’s sake, concern over the billboards is twofold. First off, they’re bright — like, really bright. And they’re oriented more or less vertically, the blinding panel illuminating not just the road but also the whole sky.
“Someone who’s half a mile away will see this as the same brightness as the full moon,” Shetrone said.
Worse off, though, is the type of light that’s emitted. Unlike the sodium vapor streetlights the city installed decades ago (at Lick’s request), the LED lights powering new digital billboards release a broad spectrum of wavelengths to produce their white glow.
This makes the light pollution much harder for astronomers to filter out, and it also allows blue light to scatter through the atmosphere and travel even farther.
The proposal does incorporate some of the Lick Observatory’s previous recommendations, like tilting the boards slightly downward. But the guidance was largely taken out of context and is now out-of-date, Lynam said.
While the potential observation challenges are certainly concerning for the astronomers, they maintain that public safety is their primary concern. After all, light pollution has also been linked to distracted driving, ecological effects and even elevated cancer risks, Shetrone said.
These airport billboards were originally proposed back in 2018, and the movement has faced repeated pushback — mainly from concerned residents.
“I don’t know why this keeps going forward despite the massive opposition to it,” Lynam said. “Are you mortgaging the future lifestyles and environment and enjoyment of the night sky of the people of the South Bay for a fraction of a 1% increase in revenue at the airport?”
The fight mirrors a larger societal trend toward brighter night skies, which slowly cloak the expressive twinkles once seen from white domes across the globe. For now, Lick astronomers are relying on public support to keep the billboard ban alive.
“San Jose and Santa Clara counties have always been really respectful, responsive and understanding,” Lynam said. “I’m hoping that the present billboard issue is just a blip in that long-standing cooperation and hopefully just a misunderstanding.”
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