The light bulb changed the world when it was invented in 1879, allowing Humans to continue working into the night to solve the problems of the times but has since created a much larger problem in our modern world creating untold stresses on our wildlife and ecosystems in the process. Tomorrow marks the end of ,,,,, for 2021. This annual event takes place during the week of the New Moon each April. Its main goal is to bring attention to the harmful effects of light pollution, both for humans and wildlife. The most obvious effect of light pollution would be how artificial lighting denies people the view of the night sky as it should naturally appear. Most people who live in towns or cities have never experienced the wonder of viewing the Milky Way in all its glory - something that is considered spiritual by many and might help us understand our place in the universe. Instead, if conditions are right, we are lucky to able to see the brightest of the celestial bodies such as Orion's Belt or the Big Dipper, but the great expanse is lost to us. The night sky is something that every generation of Humans has experienced throughout history and only within the past 100 years has that experience been stolen from us, no doubt altering our perception of our place within Nature in the process.
The other issue with artificial lighting is the myriad of negative effects it has on our Natural World. From the smallest of insects to the largest of trees, artificial lighting can have deadly consequences for many living beings. You've all heard the saying "Like a Moth to a Flame," which details how nocturnal insects are drawn to lighting. This is due to insects having evolved for 479 million years in the presence of only the Sun, Moon, and Stars as light sources in their world. These sources of light are used by insects to navigate as well as time their emergence and mating habits. For many insects, such as beneficial pollinators like Moths or predatory insects such as Lacewings, artificial lighting is a death sentence. These insects will be drawn in and will literally exhaust themselves to death as they continually throw themselves at these artificial sources of light, meaning many times these fixtures end up as sinks for the local insect population. This phenomena is so well documented that devices have been created by "pest control" companies to capitalize on insects' enticement to light with the result being Bug-Zappers. Even for pest insects that are not attracted to light, such as Mosquitoes, these devices have been marketed by the millions and are having disastrous results for our beneficial insects as the by-kill far outnumbers (and negates) and successful elimination of target species. These devices simply do not work and more needs to be done to eliminate them from the market.
Songbirds are another form of wildlife that are highly effected by artificial lighting. This is especially true during the biannual migrations when many birds are navigating at night via the Stars and Moon. Entire cities have woken up to mass bird deaths as flocks hundreds or even thousands in numbers have become disorientated and flown directly into lighted buildings where the birds have then died from their blunt-force trauma. Some cities, especially those in known flyways have taken a stand to reduce lighting both within and outside of their buildings in order to mitigate any issues to our migrating feathered friends. As birds settle into our cities and suburbs to claim breeding territories, negative impacts of artificial lighting continues often forcing them to wake (and sing) earlier in the morning, spending precious calories before the day has truly begun. Many people in the suburbs become annoyed by a pesky Mockingbird waking them at 2am since the street lights are often too bright are a constant disturbance to our wildlife.
These two issues are compounded when you consider that insects are eaten by songbirds, especially their larval forms by songbird chicks. Artificial lighting often entraps and lures the most nutritious insects - Moths - well before they are able to mate themselves. This means that songbirds have to work even harder to find nutritious caterpillars to feed their chicks. This also goes for our other flying friends, the Bats, nine of which reside in New York State. These flying mammals are essential to our ecosystem and keep pest species in check with just one bat being able to eat over 1000 mosquitoes in just one hour of flight. The more artificial lighting a neighborhood has the less habitable to Bats, Predatory Insects, and Beneficial Insects, but it does create the perfect conditions for invasive diurnal and crepuscular Asian Tiger Mosquitoes. If only we would turn off the lights and allow these beneficial creatures to perform their ecosystem services for us then we would have a much healthier and balanced natural world.
Other life forms that are not often given the attention they deserve are our plants. Studies have shown that urban trees are highly stressed due to artificial light which extends the day length and disrupts the natural processes that trees need to perform under the cover of darkness. Earlier bloom times, stunted growth, and early death have all been documented in urban trees due the stressed that come along with living in the urban environment.
On Long Island, and the rest of Eastern North America, we are also lucky enough to share our land with a miracle of nature - Fireflies. Also known as Lightning Bugs these insects are neither flies nor true bugs but Beetles and use their bio-luminescence to carry out their mating rituals and advertise to predators that they come with a toxic punch if consumed. Between constant pesticide use and artificial lighting we are at risk of losing these creatures for good, robbing our children of one of the wonders of the natural world in the process.
Each morning I am discouraged by the multitudes of porch lights and accent lighting that are left on all night long in my own neighborhood. With each new home being built including large LED flood lamps under both the first and second floor eaves turning night into day for almost half the block they reside on. I see bug zappers in front and back yards, left on for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when the home owner is rarely seen outside enjoying their patio or yard. The new street lights installed by the town are also White/Blue LEDs which are the most detrimental wavelength to our wildlife and has even been shown to disrupt human circadian rhythms and health.
Luckily all is not lost and their is darkness at the end of the tunnel! Organizations like Dark Skies International as well as local Grassroots groups such as the Dark Skies Advisory Committee for the Town of South Hampton are doing the good work and educating the public as well as passing legislation to prevent light pollution. Countries such as Germany are banning certain wavelengths of lighting which have been shown to be most detrimental to wildlife and states within the US that are home to large Seabird and Sea Turtle nesting sites have also passed legislation to prevent negative impacts on our beloved wildlife.
As guidelines go, elimination of artificial exterior lighting is key. With curtains or blinds being used to prevent indoor lighting from bleeding out. Lighting is often touted as a safety feature, with studies showing crime increasing in areas where streetlights no longer function and local authorities recommending exterior lighting to deter thieves and trespassers. Luckily technology holds the answer with motion sensors being a great option since the lights will only turn on if a person is there. Amber-Red wavelength lighting is also a great option and does not disturb wildlife nearly as much, with red being optimal. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Service also has gone ahead and certified many light bulbs as well as light fixtures to help the public better mitigate the impact exterior lighting has on wildlife. Their guides are a great place to research the issue and find ways you yourself can mitigate your impacts on wildlife both at home and within your community. Together we can educate the masses, implement science-based legislation, and turn the tide on the negative effects artificial lighting has on the natural world. All it takes is a little effort on our part to be good neighbors to the wildlife we care for so dearly.