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What are the Effects of Artificial Light Pollution on the Environment?

Vegan Life touches on the subject of artificial light pollution and the effects that it has on the environment and ourselves

 

There’s something comforting about the idea of taking a moment to sit beneath the moon and stars. Sometimes it feels like semi-darkness darkness has the power to cure a multitude of toxic thoughts. Yet the weird thing is, we’re diurnal beings. Humans aren’t nocturnal species. We were made to enjoy the sunlight because that’s the only time our eyes allow us to see clearly without manmade light interfering with our vision. To put it bluntly, we fantasise about the clarity of the midnight sky, but most of us who live in built-up cities, towns and villages have never actually seen it in its full natural beauty.

 

Instead, we wander urban streets illuminated by street lamps, car headlights, nightclub beams and a whole host of other engineered light, that little of us realise actually contaminates our vision and many other living organisms understanding of night. When we look up to the evening sky, we see pink tones (aka sky glow), aeroplanes, the moon and very few stars. Believe it or not, some people who live in major cities have never seen a star at all, because our idea of light being a necessity at night has killed their visibility.

 

Just ask yourself, have you ever seen the gossamer expanse of our Milky Way? Do you even know what it is? Most likely not. Mainly, because as western ‘earthlings’ many of us like to spend our Saturday night enjoying one too many drinks with friends in some over cramped club until silly AM. Few of us think twice about how the strobe lights that really enhance the party vibe, are in actual fact one of many manmade lights contributing to artificial light pollution that is causing carnage for our wildlife and environment.

 

Half the problem is, artificial light pollution doesn’t get the same media coverage or widespread campaigning as chemical waste or air contamination. Though, that’s not to say it isn’t as detrimental to the functioning of our planet earth as other environmental issues. In fact, it was only last June a study carried out by Science Advances revealed how more than 80 per cent of our world’s population lives under light-polluted skies, with more than 99 per cent of U.S. and European populations being exposed to it. With such high percentages you can’t help but wonder how exactly our overuse of electrical light at night affects our planet, and what realistic action we can take to stop it without turning to darkness.

 

It might not be common knowledge that plants and animals depend on earth’s cycle of sunrises and sunsets, but it certainly isn’t a new discovery. Our planet’s rhythm of light and dark is responsible for much of the behaviour adopted by both plants and animals. Arguably the most important of which is reproduction. Plants strongly rely on the length of night to indicate their season for budding and flowering, whilst animals use it to signify the right time to mate. For example, female glow-worms use bioluminescent flashes in order to attract males up to 45 meters away, but when artificial light comes to play it can interrupt those very important signals. Back in 2014, the Journal of Herpetology found that the female South American Túngara frog is less selective about mate choice when greater amounts of light are present, as it’s believed they prefer to mate quickly in order to avoid an increased risk of predation in higher light.

 

When it comes to predators and prey, many ecosystem interactions are planned by light. Obviously, when sunsets and artificial light is present in a predator’s hunting ground it disrupts the natural balance by giving the predator a longer period to attack their prey.  It’s a vicious circle, because the light benefits the hunting species but puts prey at risk.

 

Similarly, artificial lights can disorientate hatchling turtles, night flying moths, frogs, amphibians and birds.  Birds are one of 450 species who use the moon and stars to navigate their paths, and if a group of birds gets confused by the beams given off by a lighthouse, their flight path is disrupted. Another species who suffers is moths – many are burnt on outdoor lights that have gained so much heat because they’ve been left it on so long. And, of course, the animals who end up innocently dead by the roadside because they were blinded by headlights.

 

Don’t forget about plants either. We’re taught they need sunlight to grow, but how many of us are aware of their need for darkness too?  Lots of cactus species bloom at night as they are pollinated by nocturnal insects or animals. However, pollinators and animals that are needed for the plants’ cycles can also be affected by our over usage of light too. And it gets even more complicated. Whilst most night lighting may not be enough to cause photosynthesis, it can still affect trees that are sensitive to day length.  This changes flowering patterns, and most importantly, promotes continued growth long after it is safe for the trees to do so, due to a change in season.

 

So why isn’t the damage caused by light pollution as globally debated as climate change? And what can we do to help?

 

Some small movements have been implemented already. Globally, the World Wide Fund for Nature started ‘Earth Hour’ to encourage everyone to switch off all unnecessary light at 8:30pm every March 25. Over 178 countries participated this year. The whole idea behind Earth Hour is a great way to raise awareness, but then again you also have to ask yourself what’s one hour out of 8760 a year? We could still do more.

 

Within the UK, some district councils have decided to switch street lights off between 1am and 5am. A few hours of unlit roads might reduce air pollution for a short while, but councils are also aiming to replace all streetlights with LED. Whilst this is a more energy efficient option, LED is believed to have five times greater impact on humans and animals health.

 

So where do we go from here? Yes, we have to remember some night light is for our own safety; however we also have to consider other living organisms. After all, this is not just our planet.

 

John Barentine is program manager at International Dark-Sky Association. IDA is scientific organisation whose key purpose is to educate the public and policy makers about how and why we must protect our night skies. He says: “Fundamentally, we have to change the human relationship to the use of artificial light at night if we want to solve this problem. Changing behaviour, however, is hard. Right now, people around the world — and especially in emerging economies — look at light at night as a form of safety.

 

“We have to convince people that much of the light they generate now is simply wasted, and benefits no one (while inflicting environmental harm). Somewhere between 20-50 per cent of artificial light at night never makes it to the ground (or is reflected from the ground and goes up into the night sky). There is a dollar cost, and a carbon cost, for the electricity needed to run all those lights. So, light pollution is carbon pollution is climate change. It’s that simple.”

 

“Note that I didn’t say something like ‘We should turn all the world’s lights off.’ That’s not a realistic solution to the problem. We’re past the time when humans coped with the status quo of limited access to light at night.”

 

The cause of air pollution lies very heavily on the human trait that when something become easily accessible and it’s no longer seen as exclusive, we tend to overindulge in it. In fact, we binge on artificial light like we do fuel consumption and waste production. So much so, that these habits become embedded as a norm into our daily lives and as a result of that our lifestyle, environment, health, rituals and even communication has sent us down a path to what seems like our natural habitat, but in fact it’s misleading us far from it. And then when it comes to making resolutions to solve the environmental/health issue we have unintentionally created, we fall into a state of denial. Mainly, because we fail to see how just one person choosing to sleep without the light on is going to save the world. The truth is. It isn’t. But it’s going to help it.

 

“The use of artificial light at night can never be a fully sustainable proposition, because its presence in the night time environment is thoroughly unnatural,” John Barentine explains. “But, like the use of all kinds of other resources, the best we can hope for is to reduce the impacts as much as possible, since as humans we have to make our way in this world and we’re never going back, in terms of the forward march of technological progress.”

 

“If we merely restricted our use of artificial light only to the times and places where it is needed to allow the safe performance of tasks at night, we would substantially reduce our artificial light emissions.”

 

What’s light pollution doing to YOU?

  • Melatonin which contributes to circadian rhythm regulation, sleep, hormonal expression of darkness, seasonal reproduction, retinal physiology, antioxidant free-radical scavenging, cardiovascular regulation, immune activity, cancer control, and lipid and glucose metabolism is suppressed and interrupted at night because its production is dependent on darkness.
  • Diabetes, depression, failure at school, and difficulties in concentrating is also affected by light pollution. Some studies indicate a link between artificial light and obesity as well.
  • FYI: even our smartphones and tablets emit light that is dangerous to us, not forgetting all the other engineered light we are exposed to. Turn-off whilst you sleep.

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