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Understanding the Effects of Light Pollution on Wildlife Johnny Noles, Biologist Chesapeake Bay INTRODUCTION

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Understanding the Effects


Light Pollution on Wildlife

Johnny Noles, Biologist

Chesapeake Bay



This presentation was created to provide International Dark Skies Association (IDA) members and concerned citizens a general information resource for discussion of light pollution problems with emphasis on the effects on wildlife. Feel free to use the whole or parts of the presentation for educational outreach.

Beginning with the contents on the following slide, The presentation begins with a pictorial introduction highlighting outdoor lighting and the basic effects of outdoor lighting on wildlife. It further goes on to compare light pollution with chemical pollution. It emphasizes the shortcomings of government regulations governing pollution. It provides an example of how environmental agencies are even responsible for the introduction of light pollution through public environmental regulatory programs. In the absence of light pollution regulations, it identifies public interest actions that have been initiated in the interest of wildlife conservation.

The presentation concludes with general recommendations for environmental agencies.



  • I. Introduction
  • Pictorial Identification of Problem
  • Wildlife and Habitat Impact Issues
  • II. Understanding Light Pollution
  • Definition of Pollution
  • Observed Effects of Pollution
  • Comparing Light Pollution with Chemical Pollution
  • Light Pollution Regulation
  • Examples of How Environmental Agencies are Impacting the Environment with Light
  • Pollution
  • IV. Public Action Precedents in Wildlife Conservation and Light Pollution
  • Recommendations for Public Agencies

Virginia Wildlife Ecosystems Affected by Light Pollution

  • Chesapeake Bay
  • Coastal Barrier Islands
  • Mountain Ranges
  • Forests, rivers, streams, lakes
  • Urban habitats

What are the effects of light pollution on wildlife and their habitats?

I. Introduction


Elements of Light Pollution Impacting Wildlife

Light Trespass

Sky Glow



I. Introduction


Compare Lighting from Natural and Artificial Sources

“ what the critters see ”

Natural night sky



light pollution

I. Introduction


Wildlife Issue

Light pollution is trespassing into wildlife habitat

Wildlife Concerns From

Exposure to Light Pollution

Habitat Disturbance

Wildlife Behavior

Wildlife Survival

I. Introduction



yellow crowned night heron


gray tree frog

spotted seatrout


  • Active at night, roost by day.
  • Some species species are rare, threatened and endangered species.
  • Some species provide human and ecological health benefits.
  • Some species provide economic benefits
  • What are the effects of light pollution on their habitat and behavior?

I. Introduction








  • Active by day, roost at night.
  • Some species are rare, protected and endangered species.
  • Some species provide human and ecological health benefits.
  • Some species provide economic benefits.
  • What are the effects of light pollution on their habitat and behavior?

I. Introduction


Habitat Disturbance Observations

  • Disruption of natural day-night illumination cycle in natural areas.
  • Replacement of nocturnal (night) cycle by elevated levels of continuous artificial lighting over broad natural areas.
  • Greatest exposure of terrestrial habitats is mostly under tree canopy and over ground level areas which is the preferred zone of most terrestrial wildlife inhabitation.
  • Aquatic habitats subject to light trespass from upland and shoreline human habitation. Water surface reflections magnify light pollution.
  • Light pollution in wildlife habitats mimic extended daylight conditions causing wildlife behavior to be unnaturally modified.
  • Exposure of wildlife circadian rhythms to light pollution.
  • Wildlife biodiversity at risk in light polluted nocturnal habitats.
  • Diminished habitat function (e.g., shelter, protection, food).

I. Introduction


Understanding Light Pollution

  • Does it fit the definition of a pollutant?
  • What are the common effects of pollutants?
  • What similarities do chemical and light pollutants have in common?

II. Understanding Light Pollution



  • Pollute - to make unfit for or harmful to living things.
  • Pollutant - something that pollutes; a waste material that contaminates air, soil, or water.
  • Pollution - Contamination of air, soil, or water by the discharge of harmful substances.

Forms of pollutants and examples

Gas – carbon monoxide

Liquid - oil

Solid - asbestos

Light – streetlights

Noise – loud machinery

II. Understanding Light Pollution



  • Behavior
  • Growth
  • Reproduction
  • Survival
  • Death
  • Habitat Modification
  • Pollutant Environmental Fate
  • Population Effects

II. Understanding Light Pollution


Similarities between Chemical and Light Pollution

  • Organism LP
  • ImpactChemical* Light** Examples
  • Human Exposure yes yes urban/industrial settings
  • Wildlife Exposure yes yes urban/industrial settings
  • Abnormal behavior yes yes migrations, attraction/avoidance
  • Growth yes yes plants, cancer cells
  • Reproduction yes yes mammals, amphibians
  • Survival yes yes sea turtles, birds
  • Death yes yes sea turtles, birds
  • * Sufficient data generated by studies on numerous chemicals.
  • ** Insufficient data; repeated observations of incidences and correlation to presence of artificial lighting.

II. Understanding Light Pollution


Similarities between Chemical and Light Pollution

ChemicalLight Examples

  • Habitat Modification yes yes coastal ecosystems*
  • Population Effects yes yes sea turtles, birds
  • Pollutant Environmental Fate persistent persistent ubiquitous in urban/

or short-lived industrial environments

  • Ecological Imbalance yes yes coastal ecosystems *
  • Environmental Restoration expensive$$$ cheap$ Florida coasts**

Cedar River, WA****

  • Restoration benefits long term immediate Florida coasts**

Cedar River, WA****

* = Chesapeake Bay

          • ** = Sea turtle nesting habitats
          • *** = See slide #18 for explanations
          • **** = See slide #22 – sockeye salmon habitat

II. Understanding Light Pollution



  • Chemical pollution tightly regulated by public law and multiple agencies
  • Light pollution is not regulated by environmental agencies. Most agencies and many environmental interest groups are dead asleep on the issue
  • The States of Florida has set the precedent to regulate outdoor lighting strictly for wildlife conservation purposes.

II. Understanding Light Pollution



  • Agencies put the burden on local governments to control light pollution.


  • Light pollution needs the same attention as chemical pollution
  • Environmental agencies need to address light pollution as a regional ecosystem and wildlife conservation management approach.
  • Examples: Chesapeake Bay Program
  • Florida Everglades Program
  • Great Lakes Program

II. Understanding Light Pollution


USA’s First Outdoor Lighting Ordinance for Wildlife Conservation

Endangered Sea turtles in Florida

Life cycle consist of birth on land, spending life in ocean, returning to land only to nest

  • Beach nesting habitats exposed to bright outdoor shoreline lighting
  • Adults won’t come ashore to nest
  • Hatchlings emerge from sand nests, normally orientate towards starlit ocean
  • Artificial lights on beaches, coastal roads, and buildings disorientate hatchlings and adults that crawl away from the beach towards inland light sources.
  • Migratory disruptions from light pollution leads to death from dehydration, wildlife, domestic animals and human predation, and vehicle collusions

II. Understanding Light Pollution



  • Army Corp of Engineers, State Environmental Agencies and local Wetlands Boards
  • Permits do not address lighting on piers and waterfront structures
  • Nontarget lighting trespassing into wetlands and upland wildlife habitat
  • Problem magnified by water surface reflections
  • Disturbance and modification of wildlife habitat and behavior
  • Failure to address light pollution through wetlands regulations fosters impacts on wildlife environment, boating safety, public aesthetics and effectiveness of existing wetlands protection efforts.
  • Examples of How Environmental Agencies are Impacting the Environment with Light Pollution

Light Pollution Impacts on Wildlife Through the Nationwide Wetlands Permitting Process

Potential for Water Quality Impacts

  • Unshielded pier and waterfront lighting penetrates the water column.
  • Artificial lighting promotes algal growth in surface waters
  • Algae feeding zooplankton uses natural light to migrate to deeper water for food. At night, they migrate to the surface. Artificial lights from piers and shore structures causes zooplankton to stay in deeper water when they should be feeding on the surface at night.
  • The disruption of zooplankton behavior and feeding cycles leads to algal blooms in the surface water.
  • Algal blooms associated with declining water quality conditions.
  • Light pollution-induced water quality effects are high for ponds, lakes, impoundments, and low flushing coastal watershed stream and river environments.
  • Examples of How Environmental Agencies are Impacting the Environment with Light Pollution

Public Action Precedents in Wildlife Conservation Involving Light Pollution

    • SEATURTLES - first identified light pollution indicator organism. Led to nation’s first public outdoor lighting ordinance in Florida for wildlife conservation purposes.
    • BIRDS – FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) Highly successful Canadian public program aimed at reducing birds kills from collusions with lighted city buildings. Program identifies numerous bird species at risk from light pollution. Visit
    • SW USA ENDANGERED CAT SPECIES - US Border Patrol proposes putting up bright lights along US-Mexico border inhabited by endangered cats. USFWS presses for Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

IV. Public Action Precedents in Wildlife Conservation and Light Pollution


Public Action Precedents in Wildlife Conservation Involving Light Pollution

  • ENDANGERED CAT SPECIES - zoo breeding program observes Pallas cats’ reproductive difficulties in bright zoos. Pallas relocated to darker areas and reproduction activity returns to normal.
  • SPORT FISHES - Civil court case involving nocturnal seatrout species in Scotland. Fishermen claim seatrout fishing degraded by light pollution from adjacent property. Court supports sport fishermen with judgment supported by expert testimony on seatrouts’ nocturnal behavior.

In State of Washington, light trespassing into fish habitat from unshielded lights on Cedar River trails resulted in interference with sockeye salmon fry migration and an increase in predation pressures. Lights shielding by WA DOT reduced light trespass, enhanced habitat, and improved fish migratory passage.

IV. Public Action Precedents in Wildlife Conservation and Light Pollution


Public Action Precedents in Wildlife Conservation

Involving Light Pollution

  • US NATIONAL PARK SERVICE is responding to public concerns about light pollution and loss of night sky aesthetics. National Park Service retrofitting existing lights with full cut off optics (FCO). Public night sky aesthetics restoration seen as a wildlife benefit
  • MIGRATORY BIRDS - mortalities from collusions with lighted buildings and towers has led to USFWS guidance on lighted towers.

IV. Public Action Precedents in Wildlife Conservation and Light Pollution



  • Environmental agencies (EPA, NOAA, USFWS, USACOE) and environmental interest groups (Sierra Club, Audubon Society, etc., ) need to take more concerted action on light pollution as an environmental problem of significant concern.
  • Define artificial lighting as an environmental contaminant and ecological stressor.
  • Environmental agencies must provide funding to conduct scientific studies to investigate light pollution impacts on the environment and wildlife.
  • Environmental agencies must develop strategies and environmental regulations to address light pollution and protection of wildlife habitats.
  • Develop the Chesapeake Bay, Florida Everglades Restoration and Great Lakes Programs as nationwide models to reduce light pollution impacts on wildlife.
  • Public and private environmental programs can initiate outreach service to provide local wetlands boards, environmental interests groups and private citizens with education, regulatory guidance and funding on light pollution reduction.
  • DOD installations could set public example of light pollution reduction as a means of enhancing wildlife habitat, public night sky aesthetics and energy savings through DOD environmental stewardship programs, ecosystem management initiatives, retrofitting needed existing outdoor lights with FCO lighting, and using electronic security technology to replace outdoor lighting as primary means of security.

V. Recommendations for Public Agencies



  • Wetlands Regulatory - Army Corps of Engineers, State Agencies and Local Wetlands Boards
  • Issue pier and marina permits with light pollution environmental assessment and shielded lighting requirements.
  • Ban mercury vapor, sodium vapor and halide lights on residential and public piers, marinas and other waterfront structures. Use properly placed hooded alternate low illumination lamps instead for walkways and safety areas.
  • No water surface reflections or indirect light trespass into surrounding habitat and adjacent properties.
  • Use lowly illuminated hazard warning (yellow coded) lights on long piers and bridges to warn boater traffic of potential navigation hazard.
  • Require all waterfront property owners to comply with the environmental mandate to reduce light pollution in the wetlands and waterways.
  • Provide waterfront property owners with grants or awards to eliminate or retrofit existing lights to implement light pollution control as a habitat enhancement, wildlife conservation, boating safety enhancement, and public aesthetics enhancement initiative.

V. Recommendations for Public Agencies