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Why Are Lighthouses Still a Thing?

Even with the advent of GPS and advanced navigation technology, the towers on the rocks shine.
Big Sable Point Lighthouse. Image: peddhapati/Flickr

Lighthouses are some of the most beautiful and fascinating historical buildings we have. They're great to visit, photograph, or get married next to, but why the heck are they still lit?

With the advent of GPS and all the modern navigation technology used on ships, one would think the people who maintain these historic buildings would just let the lights go dim, rather than continue paying for what appears to be an obsolete technology. But in the eyes of many mariners and even the United States Coast Guard, they're still a useful guide.

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"If the government didn't feel that they were still needed to some degree for navigation, they would just turn them all off and save some money," said Jeremy D'Entremont, a maritime historian and author who has researched American lighthouses for more than 30 years.

"Most of them are still considered what's called 'active aids for navigation,'" he said. "Some of them have been turned off, but it's a minority."

D'Entremont estimated 60 to 70 percent of the country's 800 or so lighthouses are still active today (numbers are hard to nail down because lighthouses are divided among private owners, nonprofits, and the government). In New England alone, where D'Entremont has more of an expertise, he said there are 170 lighthouses and 140 of those are still active.

"Most ships and boats, even the smallest boats these days, have GPS of some sort, VHF radio and other electronics, but that stuff can fail. We all know computers can crash very easily, some solar activity can affect GPS, there's a lot of reasons why it can fail," he explained. "It doesn't hurt to have actual, physical, tangible things like lighthouses and buoys that help confirm your position."

D'Entremont told me most mariners and fishermen still use the lighthouse as a backup on top of their electronic equipment, sort of like double-checking the street signs while driving using a GPS.

But it's also true that lighthouses are not the primary navigational tool they once were, so over the past few decades the Coast Guard—which operates all of the shoreline navigation aids like lights and buoys—has been scaling back the money they spend to upkeep lighthouses. They sell, donate, or auction off the buildings (often to preservation societies or local governments) and only remain responsible for the lights themselves, D'Entremont told me.

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Of those lights, the Coast Guard has converted many to solar power to save on maintenance and electricity costs, especially offshore lighthouses that used to run on expensive underwater cables. They've also been switching to LED lightbulbs, which are more efficient and require less maintenance, though D'Entremont said they lack a bit of charm.

"They used to have a rotating lens that produced a sweeping, warm light on the water. Now they have this little flashing LED that's very different. I don't want to condemn the Coast Guard for that, but they're not as pretty as the older ones," he said.

Other countries aren't quite as romantic about keeping the lighthouses turned on. Germany, for example, has been slowly extinguishing its lighthouses over the past decade, keeping them only as historical buildings and not official navigation aids. And D'Entremont suspects there may come a day when the US follows suit.

"They may decide in our lifetime that they're not worth maintaining. They're not central to navigation like they once were," he said. "I just have the feeling that it's possible that we might see the end of lighthouses."

That said, thanks to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act and the work of preservationists, most of the lighthouses will be maintained as historical monuments for generations to come, even if they go dark. And for now, if you find yourself sailing in a New England version of the Bermuda Triangle and all of your equipment goes dead at once, you can still rely on one ancient piece of technology to guide you home.