Dim the lights and let the "moonbow" shine over Niagara Falls

Editorial by Professor Ernie Sternberg argues natural phenomenon could boost binational tourism

Rainbow at night

A lunar rainbow, or moonbow, arcs above the mist at the famed Victoria Falls in Africa. Photo:  Scolopendra33

by David J. Hill

Published July 27, 2018

A glorious "moonbow," or lunar rainbow, would shine over Niagara Falls during full moons - if it weren't for light pollution. An editorial published by Ernest Sternberg argues a binational effort to dim the lights could create something beautiful, and invigorate tourism. 

Moonbows used to occur regularly in the mist above Niagara Falls during the full moon phase of the lunar month. You won’t see one now, however, because of the bright lights illuminating the U.S. and Canadian cities of Niagara Falls.

It’s a missed tourism and economic opportunity for both sides of the border, says a UB School of Architecture and Planning professor who recently published an op-ed about The Falls' moonbow in newspapers in Toronto and Buffalo.

Ernest Sternberg, professor and former chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, is calling for a binational moonbow coalition to encourage city governments, parks and the businesses on both sides of The Falls to douse their lights a few nights each month to help create the conditions for Niagara’s moonbow to be seen.

“In economic terms, it would not be in vain. What greater reasons than gossamer moonbeams for an evening at The Falls? What finer honeymoon memory than a kiss under the moonbow?” Sternberg wrote in the op-ed, published in the Toronto Star and The Buffalo News.

A moonbow occurs when the moon’s light is refracted through water droplets in the air. There are several waterfalls around the world where lunar rainbows are revealed; most notably, Victoria Falls, which straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe in Africa.

While the natural conditions are in place at Niagara Falls, light pollution obscures the moonbow in the Falls’ mist. Instead of experiencing this phenomenon in their own backyard, Buffalonians and Torontonians instead have to travel to either Cumberland Falls in Kentucky or Upper Yosemite Falls in California.

It might seem odd for an urban planner with decades of practice and teaching experience to take such an interest in The Falls’ lunar rainbow and bring it to the public’s attention. But, Sternberg told UB Now, there’s a bigger issue at play.

“I’ve long been fascinated by the co-existence in Niagara Falls, New York, of the drastic need to relieve poverty and joblessness with the spectacular scenery that could attract ever more tourists, improving the economy,” he said. “Attempts to take advantage have sometimes fallen to fly-by-night investors, or sincere investors with no experience and no funds.”

Sternberg says new attractions are needed to keep tourists in town longer, pushing their stay past the critical four- to five-hour mark, when they are more likely to stay overnight, thereby patronizing hotels and restaurants. “That will be good for the economy, and will spur further investment in the city,” he said.

That’s why creating the conditions that make the moonbow visible can help give the American side of Niagara Falls the boost it needs, while benefitting the more bustling Canadian side of the cataract.

The moonbow proposal also ties into Sternberg’s theoretical research on recognizing and designing tourism experiences in places that have public assets that can be developed into attractions.

“Niagara Falls is a public good that serves as the essential shared attraction that should generate activity for the surrounding communities,” Sternberg said.  “The question is, are there additional resources that could be fashioned by investors and public initiatives into new attractions?”

To make the moonbow visible, both sides of Niagara Falls would need to douse their lights at night for a few hours a few times each month. If both communities can agree to dim their lights, dark viewing spots and access trails would need to be designed, Sternberg said.

“I know it seems tough, but it is inexpensive enough,” he added. “What’s needed to make it happen is a binational citizens’ moonbow coalition. With enough volunteer energy behind it, it will work.”

He said it would be great if a UB physicist or astronomer and some students were willing to join the effort by helping to calculate appropriate full moons, as well as when the moon is rising and setting in the right direction to make the moonbow visible.