Light Pollution May Trick Nature Into Thinking Spring Has Arrived

July 5, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

City lights
Photo credit: Kenny Louie/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Light pollution is well known for its impact on stargazing, but now researchers have found possible links to changes in the seasons as well.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that light pollution is ruining the night sky for millions of people, a team of biologists from the University of Exeter has now found links between the early arrival of spring and the flood of artificial lighting emanating from densely populated regions.

Matching data reported by citizen scientists from around the United Kingdom with satellite images mapping artificial light patterns, researchers found sycamore, oak, ash and beech trees were budding slightly more than a week earlier than normal, and even sooner for trees that typically bud later in spring.

The research was part of a study, Light pollution is associated with earlier tree budburst across the United Kingdom, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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While the thought of spring arriving sooner may seem nice, the change in nature’s rhythm could negatively impact ecosystems.

“Researchers believe early bud bursting will have a cascade effect on other organisms whose life cycles work in synchronicity with the trees,” according to a media release by the university. “The proliferation of the winter moth for example, which feeds on fresh emerging oak leaves is likely to be affected which may in turn have some effect on birds in the food chain that rely on it for food.”

“This has got to be bad for nature,” said Professor Richard Ffrench-Constant, one of the co-leads of the study. “At the moment, caterpillars are timed to hatch to make the most of opportunities to feed from freshly budded leaves, and birds hatch in time to feed off the young caterpillars. If this cascade effect is thrown out of sync by early budding, wildlife is bound to suffer.”

While the implications of light pollution on the life cycle of budding trees and certain species seem dire, Ffrench-Constant points out that the research provided valuable insight into the types of light that were most associated with the early budding effect and may help determine which types of light are less harmful.  

“We found red lighting to be particularly culpable for this effect,” he said. “We may now have the opportunity to create 'smart lighting' that is kinder to nature.”

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