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Scientists Research the Harms Associated With Artificial Lights at Night

September 24, 2021

Scientists Research the Harms Associated With Artificial Lights at Night

A rose-breasted Grosebeak. Image provided by Kyle G. Horton.

Research shows that artificial lights at night contribute to health impacts like disrupted sleep, biodiversity loss and altered nocturnal ecosystems, as well as the deaths of up to a billion migratory birds. An interdisciplinary team at the University of Oklahoma has been awarded a nearly $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to integrate social and biological science research to seek solutions to this “wicked problem” of artificial lights at night.  

“Urban lighting and lights at night is a wicked problem that causes a wide range of issues – human health problems, like disrupted sleep and with our endocrine system, and disruptions to ecological systems that are tied to night cycles,” said Jeff Kelly, the lead for the research project and a professor of biology in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences. “Wicked problems arise from complex and competing tradeoffs among diverse social and environmental needs.”

The research team involved in the project includes social scientists from OU’s National Institute for Risk and Resilience and Kyle G. Horton, an OU alumnus, now an assistant professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University, who received a companion grant of $1.5 million to support the research.

Kelly, who also is the Corix chair and director of the Plains Institute at OU, says the affordability and energy efficiency of LED bulbs has led to increased artificial lighting at night, especially in urban areas that have had many unintended consequences.

“There’s a perception among urban planners and safety officials that increased lighting creates safe environments; however, evidence is mixed on whether lighting really is associated with safer environments,” Kelly said. “Whereas, we do know birds, in particular migrating birds, are attracted to well-lit buildings; millions of birds die annually in collisions with well-lit buildings, which contributes to widespread bird population declines.”

A Wilson’s Warbler. Image provided by Kyle G. Horton.

“Artificial lights at night adversely affect all kinds of migratory birds, but small songbirds that migrate at night are disproportionally impacted,” he added. “You’ll see an awful lot of Wood-Warblers, Vireos, Thrushes and Tanagers colliding with buildings.”

To attempt to mitigate the negative impacts of urban lighting, the research team plans to coordinate the efforts of passionate bird advocates nationwide. They will also gather detailed national survey information on the use of artificial lights at night in urban areas to inform the development of bird migration forecasts specific to the impacts of urban lighting.

“This project focuses on mobilizing the existing community of highly motivated, high-energy advocates to see if we can raise understanding and discussion around lights at night,” Kelly said.  “We hope that by starting with this community, we can bring together other advocates – people who may be more concerned with the human health aspects, the ecological biodiversity aspect, or astronomers and the Dark Skies Initiative – to help inform a sustainable lighting campaign for urban areas and help develop a sustainable strategy for mitigating lights at night.”

Carol Silva, co-director of the National Institute for Risk and Resilience, said, “(This) migration issue represents the type of wicked problem that is difficult to solve using traditional approaches, which creates an opportunity to better understand how environmental concerns emerge from complex socio-cultural processes and can become integrated into public policy.”

“It’s a very social issue,” Kelly added. “NIRR will help us conduct a national survey of people’s attitudes to understand the scope of public perceptions about it, and then we’ll build target forecasts for particular urban areas in Houston, Atlanta, Oklahoma City and Fort Collins.”

The forecasts will include projections for when the researchers expect the highest bird migration traffic rates will occur to identify the best nights to support a “Lights Out” campaign.

“With the help of our colleagues at Colorado State University, we’ll send target messaging campaigns to people in those areas to measure whether recipients respond more positively or less positively to those messages, and to measure the impact on urban lighting and bird deaths attributable to artificial lights at night,” Kelly said.

“With tools in place, like the ability to forecast where and when migratory birds will fly at night, we hope to shift patterns of artificial lighting at night for the betterment of birds,” Horton said. “However, it’s a challenging problem that requires a broad team working closely with partners from local to national levels.”

To measure the impact on migrating birds, Kelly said the team plans to leverage existing resources that track bird injuries and deaths.

“A big piece will be to try to get all of these individual actors to contribute to one database so we can better understand the big picture,” Kelly said.

Citizen scientists can currently track bird injuries or deaths related to building collisions through apps like birdmapper and dbird in which users can mark the location and capture a photo of a bird.

Kelly said the outcomes of the study will contribute to scientists’ understanding of how researchers can work with community members to find sustainable solutions to this and other “wicked” environmental problems.

“The results will create new understanding of how ecological forecasting contributes to sustainability transformations,” he said. “But, at a minimum, I hope the outcomes of this study help more people be aware of the effects of artificial lighting on all of us and on our environment.”