Wildlife & Nature

Insects Do It in the Dark: Glaring Problem of Light Pollution Has Simple Solutions

Illuminating the darkness negatively impacts animals and humans alike

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Fireflies naturally light up the night, but artificial light turned on by humans disorientates wildlife, from insects to mammals. (istock)

You might not think much about the light on your porch, or the cute lanterns that line the pathway up to your door. But shining a little illumination on the situation of light pollution reveals that it can have a bigger impact than you might think.

“The spread of electric lighting in particular has provided a major perturbation to natural light regimes, and in consequence arguably a rather novel environmental pressure, disrupting natural cycles of light and darkness,” according to a 2013 report.

Bright city lights distract and disorient migratory birds, often causing them to collide with tall buildings. It’s estimated that about 985 million birds are killed this way annually in the United States alone.

Beyond birds, light pollution is also affecting insects, according to a recent study titled Light pollution is a driver of insect declines.

“We strongly believe artificial light at night — in combination with habitat loss, chemical pollution, invasive species, and climate change — is driving insect declines,” the scientist authors concluded after assessing more than 150 studies. “We posit here that artificial light at night is another important — but often overlooked — bringer of the insect apocalypse.”

Artificial light can hinder insect courtship and mating, and car lights lead to hundreds of billions of insect deaths each year in Germany alone.

Here in Rhode Island, the story is no different.

“Pretty much all of the Northeast is super light saturated and has huge amounts of light pollution,” said Kim Calcagno, Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s manager of the Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge in Smithfield and the Florence Sutherland Fort & Richard Knight Fort Nature Refuge in North Smithfield. “And with the main refuge that I manage at our headquarters in Smithfield, I can’t even do most night hikes anymore because there’s so much light pollution, and it affects the wildlife so much that it’s just not worth it, because we don’t hear or see anything a lot of the time.”

Beyond disorienting birds or indirectly causing their death, light pollution can also impact Rhode Island’s migratory bird flyways.

In a 2017 ecoRI News article, ornithologist Charles Clarkson, who worked with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to collect local bird migration data, said, “We’ve confirmed what we’ve always suspected: Rhode Island is a very important stopover site for migrants.”

Birds migrating north along the Atlantic flyway travel west of Rhode Island, while those that travel south in the fall cross through the state. Light pollution can disrupt these paths, confusing birds and causing them to miss vital stops along their migration.

“Birds that migrate, songbirds especially, usually migrate at night,” Calcagno said. “So light pollution can disorient them, can cause them to hit buildings, and it can cause them to be attracted to certain lighting. We have resorts and hotels and all these things along the coast which can affect them. It can cause a lot of birds to not go the way they’re supposed to go; or it can increase mortality from strikes; or they may even fly too far over the ocean to get away from the light, get exhausted and fall out of the sky and not survive.”

One essential stop on many a migratory bird’s journey is the Ninigret Pond and Conservation Areas in Charlestown, a town that prides itself on land preservation, lack of development, and its lighting ordinance.

“Charlestown has a lot of open space — about 46 percent of the town is preserved in some form or another,” said Ruth Platner, a longtime member of the Charlestown Planning Commission. “Ninigret wildlife refuge is really important for bird migrations because it’s one of the first places that has food and provides rest. The refuge itself is dark, but then the areas around it, we’d like them to stay dark, too.”

Enacted in 2012, the town’s Dark Sky Lighting ordinance provides rules for light use and installation, ranging from rules relegating lights in outdoor activity areas to sign illumination.

“It’s only for commercial use. We wanted to do it for everything, but at the time, the council approved it for commercial,” Platner said. “So, for new constructions and adding new fixtures, they have to be full cutoff fixtures, which means the light is fully within the figure. All the light should be going down and not out, and definitely not up.”

Human health impacts

Light pollution can also disturb the very people illuminating the world at night.

Nighttime lighting “is associated with reduced sleep times, dissatisfaction with sleep quality, excessive sleepiness, impaired daytime functioning, and obesity,” according to the American Medical Association.

“My friend who is astronomer had a neighbor who had a super-bright spotlight, and the spotlight was shining into her house, like so much so that his light was invading her interior space even after she bought blackout curtains,” said Kimberly Arcand, a science communicator and the visualization and emerging technology lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. “It can affect your mental health if you’ve got a bright spotlight shining into your living room every night.”

Her friend, Tracy Prell, an executive board member of Skyscrapers Inc., the Amateur Astronomical Society of Rhode Island, has been battling the light pollution around her East Providence townhouse for years.

“When I first moved here, I didn’t think anything of it, but then I was outside and my neighbors turned on their floodlights,” she said. “A couple times one had left them on overnight. She turns the outside light on because she has to let her dog out, and I’m thinking, do animals really need that much light to see? Two hundred watts? Her light illuminates my living room.”

Prell has asked for her neighbors to point the lights downward or to get a shield, but it has been hard to convince them to reduce their light pollution — unless saving money is mentioned. While she has found resistance, she hopes that through education, people will be inspired to make a change.

Arcand, who is also a Rhode Island resident, feels similarly, and has long been passionate about light pollution, primarily because it’s a problem that anyone can take action to reduce.

“I think one of the reasons I like light pollution so much as a topic is because as an individual … there are accessible, actionable things that you can do to reduce light pollution in your home,” she said.

Such actions include installing motion-sensor lights in your yard, angling outdoor lights in a certain way to reduce glare, using warm color LEDs, or simply turning off your lights when you’re not using them. You can even go beyond your personal impact and take action to reduce light pollution in your community.

“If you’re at all interested in going beyond personal responsibilities, there are a number of committees created or in existence to work on changing the lighting in a given town,” Arcand said. “Guiding town decisions in a way that reduces light pollution while also reducing energy use and still keeping things safely lit, it’s just a win-win.”

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  1. Great article, thanks for education the environmental community in this important issue. Asking a neighbor to turn a light off makes them so mad, and I can’t understand why? Such a simple concept to grab.

    Communities need to do a better job at minimizing light pollution thru ordinances. Illumination engineers need to do a better job to understand that a gas station doesn’t need 60fc under the canopies and that industrial sites that are unoccupied at night don’t require 40 roof top mounted flood lights pointing straight out. Simple stuff.

    LED manufacturers now have the technology to ready tune CCT of light sources and dim them all from an app on someone’s smartphone. Can’t understand why the consumer doesn’t place more demand on these type of options? Again, simple stuff.

    Glaring flood lights and blue-rich white LED lights are polluting our night skies more than ever. Why would someone want their backyard to have the lighted feeling of a prison is beyond me?

  2. Light pollution is a major environmental threat that is little understood. Unfortunately, as with most environmental issues, most people don’t even care, and the lighting industry takes advantage to maximise profits. A universal culture change is needed in our attitudes to outdoor lighting. Light pollution is easy to solve without loss of amenity, so there is no excuse not to do anything about it. The technology is available to achieve this (motion operated smart lights, and curfews, etc that have been described elsewhere), so we should take advantage of it.

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