Friday, 19 September 2014

Après ski

The clouds are low and swirl in a playful way over the mountains on this late August summer’s day, teasing the landscape with short-lived shafts of light.

With day upon day of grey cloud and rain it has been a poor season in this part of the French Alps - but thankfully the jet stream has re-aligned itself allowing more typical summery days to return.

We are at the winter ski resort of Les Carroz, perched on a 1140 metre plateau high above the valley and just an hour’s drive from Geneva.

Compared to the hectic bustle of its busy winter season between mid-December and late April, life in this traditional Haut-Savoyard village is running at an altogether different pace now.

The resort’s telecabin continues to ply up and down but its tarmac car park lies almost empty, a grey and colourless expanse without the myriad of cars and coaches that boost the local population from the end of each year.

For now this is the territory of walkers, para-gliders and young bikers, the latter spending their long days ascending the telecabin and then careering at breakneck speeds down steep mountain-side tracks.

At the height of winter this snow-covered landscape is truly fit for purpose, the cable cars, ski lifts, snow machines and skiing paraphernalia a relevant and necessary part of the scenery.

Today, this infrastructure seems stark and incongruous as it clings to the steep slopes, a un-natural intrusion against the backdrop of pine trees, the pristine towering walls of rock and Alpine meadows, which even now are bursting with late season colour.

Without their winter dressing of white, the ski-runs lie naked and unromantic, while the steep slopes are cris-crossed with the metal supports and cables of chair lifts which hang silent and still.

Exposed gravel paths and tracks redefine the summer landscape in a different way too and, without any sunshine to soften it the view is rather harsh and mechanical, like an abandoned theme park where the rides have been shut down.

But, as the clouds roll off a nearby mountain top, a fleeting slither of brightness transforms the view. For a moment it is like the spotlights of a giant theatre being tweaked by some unseen engineer, and we have a glimpse of brilliance that quickly changes both landscape and mood.

Waiting to board the next telecabin are a host of lean young bikers, well kitted out with padding and helmets, and clutching their small-wheeled and robust looking bikes.

As the first cabin of the next batch swings down in front of us, the automatic doors slide open and the man in charge hauls the bikes in and stacks them three per cabin. It is routine work and he drags on a roll-up at the same time.

We follow in those designated for people and our suspended cabin clunks slowly round the boarding platform before hooking into the uphill cable circuit and whisking us steeply into the air.

Les Carroz is part of an area known as the Massif - which also includes Morillon, Samoëns and Sixt - with a total of 125 km of pistes and 42 lifts. The village itself boasts 32 trails and 15 lifts of its own and is also part of the larger Grand Massif that includes Flaine.

Our upward journey takes just six minutes and I wonder if the young cyclists in the cabin ahead can race down in the same kind of time.

It being a Sunday there are more people about than usual, families and groups from nearby cities out for the refreshing mountain air and invigorating exercise.

We were heading for the Alpage de l’Airon, a restaurant nestling in a natural amphitheatre at 1765 metres, aside a man-made lake that is used to feed snow-making machines in the winter.

There is a steeply sloping descent towards the chalet from the 1882 metre viewpoint of Point du Cupoire where our one and only chance to view the snow-covered summit of Mont Blanc is thwarted by low cloud.

A conversation in a village bar the evening before had led to the recommendation to visit l’Airon, which also doubles as a small local cheese factory, for an outdoor Sunday lunch.

Our destination comes into sight as we drop towards the sheltered valley head, though looking little more than a large cow-shed from our vantage point on the track down.

Suspicions were heightened as we approached from the side, adjacent to a straw-filled doorway which was indeed a night-time refuge for the cows and their clanging bells now on out on the far hillside.

Stepping round the corner a large open air patio appeared and, along with it, a sense of relief. It was packed with a colourful array of diners, eating and drinking at several dozen tables.

The air was cool but across the valley the sky was beginning to clear, bringing the promise of sunshine and warmth as we reposed with glasses of red wine and perused the mouth-watering menu. It included, of course, the local staple Tartiflette, a rich and indulgent potato dish with lashings of Reblochon cheese.

All photos by Clive Simpson, who is the author of The Lighthouse Keeper blog - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Light of the world

Experts from around the globe gathered at Leicester’s De Monfort University in the UK this week to discuss ‘artificial light’ and how it is not only affecting the world we live in but is also increasingly helping define it.

The fact that light at night affects us adversely more than we might think is not something many of us give a second thought to - let alone consider it necessary to be discussed at an international conference.

But those at ALAN 14 - the second ‘Artificial Light at Night’ annual conference - had a significantly different take and highlighted a number of concerns that need to be taken seriously.

The scientists and researchers had travelled from the different parts of the UK, Ireland, the United States, Europe and Australia to present their findings on light-related topics and related research across the fields of health, biology, pollution, ecology, technology and design.

ALAN 2014 examined the use of artificial lighting at night in all its forms, as well as the spectrum of adverse effects that artificial light at - known collectively as light pollution - night may cause.

The theme coming through loud and clear is that society at large is barely beginning to recognising that such liberal and indiscriminate use of illumination is at a mounting cost to both the environment and ourselves.

Interestingly, an increasing number of scientific studies are now seriously questioning the long-held premise that humans are largely immune to the effects of artificial light at night.

Research is now confirming that artificial light - even in quite small doses - disrupts sleep, confuses circadian rhythms and impedes the production of the hormone melatonin.

All of which is bad news if the consequences of excessive exposure to light at night really do include an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Back in 2012 the American Medical Association (AMA) called for more research into the risks and benefits of occupational and environmental exposure to artificial light at night and for the introduction of new lighting technologies at home and at work that minimise circadian disruption.

Technological advances such as LEDs (light-emitting diodes) have improved the potential for better targeted lighting - but for now they are often brighter and more intrusive than the old lights they are replacing.

Much of our modern light - whether from TVs, computer screens, smart phones and electronic gadgets or from outdoor lighting of one form or another - is also ‘blue’ rich and so proves even more disruptive to the 24 hour biological process that regulates the body's functions.

According to conference organiser Prof Martin Morgan-Taylor, of the School of Law, De Montfort University, Leicester, and a Legal Advisor to the UK Campaign for Dark Skies, the physiological effects caused by lighting may be similar to noise.

"Admittedly, there are comparatively few studies as yet on the problems caused by lighting, but lights can and do wake people up, just as does noise," he said.

"Moreover, with light it appears that the subject does not need to be fully awakened to suffer the same negative effects as someone who has been deprived of sleep altogether."

This means that people's health can even be adversely affected by ‘security’ floodlighting and, what the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) refers to as, ‘light briefly turning on and off' during the night.

Prof Morgan-Taylor stated the research concerning cancer risks does not restrict itself to lighting that wakes the subject because risk factors are akin to the levels of night-time light entering a bedroom.

Paul Marchant, of Leeds Metropolitan University, questioned the widely held perception of ‘improved’ (brighter) lighting is always beneficial in reducing road accidents and crime.

The generic objection to this - based on the premise that light equals protection and darkness represents danger - is that we need all this light for safety and security, he said.

Such common belief goes a long way to explain why many supermarkets, petrol station forecourts and car parks, as well as our own driveways and yards, are lit more than ten times as brightly as they were just 20 years ago.

"In fact, the issue of light at night and safety is rather more complex, and there is little compelling evidence to support widespread such mis-assumptions," he said.

"Ever-brighter lights can, for example, actually diminish security by casting glare that impedes vision and creates shadows where criminals can hide."

Emma Marrington, CPRE Dark Skies campaigner and author of ‘Shedding Light’, a survey of local authority lighting policies, said some local authorities are taking steps in the right direction.

She said the research had revealed no evidence to support the fear that adjusting or dimming street lights impacted on public safety.

"We urge councils to do more to control lighting in their areas and ensure that the right lighting is used only where and when it is needed."

"We're not advocating changes where they're not appropriate - but why shine bright lights on residential streets, quiet roads and open countryside throughout the night when they are not needed?"

The consistent theme emerging from ALAN 14 was that there are many different aspects to artificial light at night and the effects on our well-being, ecology and life in general are only just beginning to be understood.

We will, no doubt, continue to tinker with the natural world and all its variances, and the exponential growth of artificial light in our homes and across the planet shows now time of dimming yet.

In the meantime, conferences like ALAN will gradually produce evidence in an attempt to redress the balance.

And one day there may come a time of new enlightenment - when we release that at certain times of the day we need dark more than light.

The conference was hosted by Leicester De Montfort Law School, De Montfort University, and co-organised with the EU COST Action LoNNe (Loss of the Night Network) in association with the International Dark Sky Association. My thanks to Martin Morgan-Taylor and Katie Scott.