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Light Pollution Creates Problems for Wildlife - May 22, 2016

               There are many different types of pollution; most people are aware of certain types of pollution such as trash pollution which can be seen on land and in the Coastal Bays in the form of plastics, soda cans, and more. Nutrient pollution, also known as eutrophication, is the excess of nitrogen and phosphorus in an ecosystem. Eutrophication can create harmful algal blooms, anoxia, and other problems in the Coastal Bays. Greenhouse gas pollution, which is the addition of excess amounts of gases such as carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, can increase global temperatures thus accelerating climate change.

                One type of pollution that many people are not aware of is light pollution. Light pollution is all around us, especially in urban and suburban areas where artificial lights are in high use. This form of pollution is a growing problem all over the world, as electricity and lighting becomes more common place in developing countries and rural areas. A couple hundred years ago, electricity and lighting were nonexistent and people had to rely on candles and gas burners for light. Now in the age of technology, electricity and lighting are readily available, creating the problem of light pollution.

                If you look up into the night sky in any major city, you will find very few stars are visible, if any. Compare this to rural and undeveloped areas, where thousands of stars are visible, appearing just out of reach. This comparison allows you to see the effects of light pollution first hand. Children who grow up in cities and suburbs may never see constellations, the North Star, or astronomic events like meteor showers and shooting stars. Light pollution causes problems for more than just stargazers though; it causes problems for numerous animal species as well.

                Birds in particular seem to be the most affected by light pollution. 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 450 bird species that migrate at night, some of which are listed as threatened or endangered. When these birds fly through brightly lit areas, they can become disoriented and confused. This can cause them to crash into lit-up buildings or circle around them until they drop from exhaustion. Light pollution along major migratory pathways can change migration habits, disorient birds, and kill individuals and even whole flocks.

                Other nocturnal creatures, such as bats, badgers, opossums, and others also experience difficulties due to light pollution. They rely on darkness to aid in hunting and hiding from predators. If there is too much light in their habitat, these animals can have drastically different behaviors which can change their eating habits and make them more susceptible to predators.

                One animal species people might be surprised to learn is affected by light pollution, are sea turtles. While not thought of as traditionally nocturnal, these animals are affected during nesting and hatching. Sea turtles must come ashore to nest, and they prefer naturally dark beaches. Due to human development of shorelines, these dark beaches are becoming fewer and far between, thus restricting the areas sea turtles can nest. Once the eggs hatch, the hatchings make their way to the water, using the reflective surface of the ocean as a guide. Light pollution along the coast can cause confusion for these hatchings, causing them to go inland. This can result in the death of thousands of sea turtle hatchlings worldwide.

                Many other species of reptiles and amphibians are also negatively affected by light pollution. Species such as salamanders, snakes, lizards, frogs and toads rely on dusk, dawn, and nighttime to hunt, travel, and mate. With the addition of all the artificial light we produce, many of these behaviors have been negatively modified. A 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 than they normally would. 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 trees frogs in areas with artificial lights and light pollution. 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 forms of pollution plaguing our planet, light pollution is probably one of the most easy to fix. Simple changes in lighting design, placement, and instillation could help restore areas with heavy light pollution to their more natural darkened state, as well as save money and energy. Turning off outdoor lights as night is a simple action that can greatly reduce local light pollution.  Now turn off those lights, and enjoy the nighttime sky.

               

Phillips is the Program Manager and Jackson is the former Education Coordinator for Maryland Coastal Bays Program.



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