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Endangered Birds Are Wounded by Deadly Light Pollution in Hawaii

Misdirected lighting from an Air Force Base in Hawaii is causing birds to literally fall from the sky. While we’ve long known that light pollution can impact avian life, the severity of that impact is now becoming clear. Fortunately, lighting technology is developing faster than ever before, so solutions are available.

Misdirected Lighting and Its Effect on Birds

More than 126 birds have recently fallen around Hawaii’s Kokee Air Force Station. Ten of them have died. Affected birds include Newell’s shearwaters, a threatened species, and the endangered Hawaiian petrels. Birds flying over the base seem to be distracted by the combination of bright lighting and foggy weather, which causes them to crash into objects or fly, confused, until exhaustion. The US Air Force has redirected their lighting fixtures and the number of incidents has already declined.


Light Pollution Alters Birds’ Daily Lifecycles

Left: Photo of sky in a rural area with minimal lighting. Right: Photo of sky in an urban environment with the telltale “glow” from light pollution.
Left: Photo of sky in a rural area with minimal lighting. Right: Photo of sky in an urban environment with the telltale “glow” from light pollution.

The phenomenon in Hawaii is emblematic of a larger problem concerning birds and night light. Birds, just like humans, have circadian rhythms that govern their daily biological cycles. Excessive night light alters these rhythms and disorients feeding schedules, reproductive cycles, directional awareness, and more. A study published in the Journal of Pineal Research found that animals with disrupted circadian rhythms (catalyzed in this case by an overexposure to artificial light) also struggle to produce melatonin, which can lead to an increased production of fat, a higher likelihood of heart disease, lower metabolism, risk of hypertension, etc. Urban areas are particularly problematic for birds because the bright lights make it tough for them to differentiate between daytime and nighttime. Scientists stress that birds cannot function normally in habitats where natural lighting has been so severely altered.



Amber LEDs May Accommodate Wildlife

Although the proliferation of night lighting has caused this problem, lighting technology offers solutions. There are full lines of wildlife-friendly LED lighting available. Amber LEDs, for example, operate at a wavelength that does not disrupt the flora and fauna around it, but provides enough light to illuminate a given area. Companies like the one linked to above offer reflectors that prevent light from reaching anywhere it isn’t needed. The amber lights also have the energy-saving perks of LED lights; notes that “LEDs use 20%–30% of the energy and last up to 25 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs.”

Your turn. Will LED lighting be enough to prevent interference in the lives of wild species? What other measures do we have to take to protect animals from light pollution? Share and tweet this article with your thoughts—I’ll follow up. 

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The Strange Reason Turtles Are Hyding on Jekyll Island

Environmental authorities have discovered a sharp decline in the number of nesting sea turtles on Georgia’s Jekyll Island, and it appears that light pollution is to blame. 111 nests were counted on other areas of the island this year, with only 1 discovered on the beaches in front of the newly opened Westin Hotel. Prior to the hotel opening, the beach hosted an average of 8 turtle nests a year. Sea turtles can lay hundreds of eggs in one nest, and the loss of 7 nests is an exponential decrease in the number of potential turtles that have the ability to be born on and live near the island.

A Different Kind of Pollution

The drop in turtle nests around the beachfront property directly corresponds with the opening of the Westin Hotel, which began operating in April, when turtle nesting season was getting underway. The hotel was cited in May by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Senior Wildlife Biologist, Mark Dodd, for 10 lighting noncompliance issues. The citations include partially shielded fixtures, light leaking from windows and individual lights, such as pool, balcony, and tree lights which are all guilty of light pollution.

Sea turtles face a variety of environmental challenges thanks to mankind, but artificial lighting remains the largest threat. Female sea turtles prefer to nest on quiet, dark. Bright lights discourage them from laying eggs. If they do manage to nest on a brightly lit beach, the resulting hatchlings will be easily disoriented. Upon hatching at night, turtles are usually drawn to the sea by the soft glow of light reflecting off the ocean. Artificial lights draw them inland, where they inevitably can not survive.

hiding turtle

An Obvious Solution

Mark Dodd and David Egan, a co-director of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, are in agreement that the height of the building and the lighting violations have created an especially unfriendly zone for sea turtle nesting in the area. Hotel officials have said they are working to achieve compliance, but that there is no time limit due to the complexity of the project. However, according the letters that were sent to the Westin regarding the infractions, once notified they have 10 days to comply before they are considered to be in violation of the terms of the lease.
Incidents like these underscore the importance of developing technologies, such as wildlife friendly LED lighting. While it may not be possible for the hotel to encourage every guest to close their blinds at night, they could easily replace many of the offending outdoor fixtures with amber LED. Amber LED emits light at a frequency and color temperature that does not negatively affect local wildlife. Not only does wildlife friendly LED cut down on light pollution, it also has the undeniable benefits of LED efficiency.

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Outdoor Lighting That Won’t Disrupt Wildlife

Bats are one of the most important species for our global ecology. After the sun goes down they, along with a few other species, become the primary pollinators of nighttime plant life. This greatly contributes to our after hours agricultural system and the environment as a whole. They are also a large contributor to insect and pest reduction. People in insect rich areas like Florida have even tried building Gothic bell towers to attract the desirable flying mammals.

Which is why it is with great alarm that scientists have realized that outdoor lighting poses a threat to nocturnal wildlife and bats in particular. Since bats only come out at night and rely on echolocation rather than their eyes to see, any light pollution can hurt them. Many other nocturnal species may benefit from a light pollution reduction in your neighborhood as well.

Bat friendly lighting generally takes the form of amber light. This is due to the wavelengths that are created by different types of light bulbs and led lights. Wildlife friendly amber light is by far the best choice for outdoor light pollution solutions. These LED lamps are built with new light emitting diode technology that uses an amber hue rather than a traditional white hue that imitates fluorescent lights.

LED technology has numerous benefits. Traditional lights actually use a majority of their energy to generate heat with light being a byproduct. LEDs are specifically designed to generate light without generating a lot of heat. Since bats use echolocation alongside a spectrum of light humans cannot see they are more susceptible to light pollution from LEDs. This effect essentially diminishes their eyesight or even blinds them in areas around outdoor LED technology.

However the Dutch Mammal Society has determined that amber colored LED’s can offer some sanctuary for bats and other nocturnal species that are being affected by this issue. Scientists and conservationists are recommending a two pronged attack against light pollution affecting bats and other nighttime species. Replace traditional white LEDs with amber hued LEDs and create special light pollution free zones that will allow bats to travel to and from areas to engage in feeding and pollination. This approach has shown results in a number of American cities and is not hard to replicate. By taking an ecologically friendly approach to lighting we can improve the lives of local wildlife while helping our own ecology at the same time.