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Lights at Night: Light Pollution Causes Problems for Humans and Animals - June 7, 2015

 Pollution, unfortunately, has become a common word, talked about everyday in schools, offices, government buildings and more. We are all aware of certain types of pollution like trash pollution, which fills our coastal bays with cigarette butts and beer cans. There is also nutrient pollution, or over nutrification, which creates algae blooms and other problems in our waterways. There is noise pollution, especially evident during car and bike weekends here in Ocean City, and the global phenomenon of green house gas pollution, the addition of excess amounts of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, into our atmosphere. 
 
    There is another kind of pollution that many people do not think about or might not know about. This kind of pollution is everywhere we look, especially at night, however people often do not give it a second thought. What I am talking about is light pollution; the obsessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial light so common in urban and suburban areas. 
 
    Light pollution is a growing problem all over the world, as electricity and lighting becomes more prevalent in developing countries and rural areas. Viewed from space at night, the earth looks like a Lite-Brite toy, with some areas lit up like a christmas tree. This was not always the case however, as only a few hundred years ago electricity and lighting were nonexistent and people had to rely on gas burners and candles for light. As technology progressed and electricity and lighting became more readily available, the problem of light pollution started to take off. 
 
    Light pollution has become a common problem almost everywhere in urban and suburban areas in America. Go to any major city and look up at night and you will see very few stars, if any. Compare this to rural, undeveloped areas, where the majesty of our galaxy can be seen twinkling just out of reach above our heads, and you can see the effects of light pollution first hand. Children who grow up in cities and the suburbs might never see the constellations or  the North Star or get to see any wonderful astronomic events, like meteor showers, shooting stars or planets being visible to the naked eye. But light pollution causes problems for more than just stargazers, it causes problems for numerous species of animals as well. 
 
    Bird species in particular seem to be the most affected populations. Many bird species use the stars and moon for navigation, especially during annual migrations when they travel hundreds if not thousands of miles. In North America alone, there are over 450 bird species that migrate at night, some of which are threatened or endangered species. When these migrating birds fly through brightly lit areas, they become disoriented and confused. When they become disoriented, the birds will crash into lit-up buildings or circle them until they drop from exhaustion. In general, light pollution along major migratory pathways can change migration habits, disorient birds and kill individuals and whole flocks. 
 
    Other nocturnal creatures, like bats, opossums, badgers and others, have difficulty with light pollution as well. These night time critters rely on the darkness to aid in hunting and hiding from predators. If there is light pollution in their habitat, these animals can have drastically different behaviors, eating habits and are more susceptible to predators due to the constant light. 
    Another animal species that has trouble with light pollution are sea turtles. Not thought of as traditionally nocturnal, these animals are most effected by light pollution during nesting and hatching. 
 
    Sea turtles must come ashore to nest and they prefer naturally dark beaches. Due to human development of the shorelines, these dark beaches are becoming fewer and fewer, restricting the areas sea turtles can nest. Once the eggs hatch, the hatchlings must make their way back to the water, using the reflective surface of the ocean as a compass. Light pollution along the coast can cause confusion for these hatchlings and cause them to go inland or along the beach instead of going into the ocean, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of sea turtle hatchlings worldwide. 
 
    Many other species of reptiles and amphibians are negatively impacted by light pollution.  Many reptiles and amphibian species, like salamanders, snakes, lizards, frogs and toads, rely on dusk, dawn and the night time to hunt, travel and mate. With the addition of all the artificial light we produce, many of these behaviors have been negatively modified.
 
    For example, a recent study done on salamanders by Ecologists Sharon Wise and Bryant Buchanan from Utica College showed that when salamanders are in areas with light pollution, they come out to hunt an hour later they would normally. This results in less time to hunt and possibly less food to eat, which could result in decreased salamander populations in these areas. 
 
    Another study by the same authors focused on tree frogs in areas with light pollution and artificial lights. This study found that when exposed to constant lighting, some tree frogs would stop calling completely, and without males calling, their chances for reproduction are slim to none. 
 
    Out of all the pollutions and problems we face environmentally, light pollution is probably the most easy to fix. Simple changes in lighting design, placement and instillation could instantly help to restore areas with heavy light pollution to their more natural darkened state as well as save money on energy. 
 
 
Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 
 


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