Unintended consequences of the lights in the Carlsbad Caverns
Being so used to almost every place being lit up so people could see their way, I hadn’t thought much about the lighting of the United States’ greatest underground natural wonders. My first trip through the Great Hall of Carlsbad Caverns was on Thanksgiving Day. We arrived shortly after this incredible natural wonder opened to the public. With so few people, we were able to have parts of the trail in the Carlsbad Caverns Great Room within minutes.
It took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust, especially my companion who is due to have cataract surgery in a few months. The lighting was dimmed. In some places it looked like there had once been lights that were now either burnt out or turned off. Wherever we could see, we stood in awe of the incredible natural growths hanging from the ceiling or rising from the ground.
Since most people were at home preparing for their Thanksgiving meal, we were able to have long conversations with the various park rangers walking around this sprawling underground wonder. One of our questions was about lighting.
The ranger told us that the lighting arrangement was designed by an expert in the theater. There used to be much bigger and brighter lights scattered around the Great Room. After some time, an undesired consequence was noticed. Green algae started to appear on the walls. This hadn’t happened before because the Carlsbad Caverns were pitch black before people wanted to be able to see what was inside. Earlier explorers went down with either oil lamps or the helmet lamps the miners wore. They do not cause algae growth.
To prevent green growth on the wet walls of the Carlsbad Caverns, some light bulbs were turned off and others dimmed. While this reduced the algae growth, it also reduced what you could see. If we had remembered, we would have taken a high-intensity flashlight. This is highly recommended on some of the guided tours where the trails are completely dark.
Over the next few years, the park service will install LED lighting. They do not encourage algae growth and will last longer than the current one. The park ranger explained that there would be much more to see than the natural wonders and that the LED would allow the Carlsbad Caverns to remain in their more natural state… if you discount the fact that “natural” means pitch black.
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