Authored Pam Diamond, Lights Out Raleigh Volunteer
Some of my fondest memories of growing up in the Southeast are long summers filled with swimming, horseback riding, watermelon seed spitting contests and catching fireflies — or lightning bugs as we called them — at night. Don’t worry, we caught and released them after experiencing the mystery and thrill of watching them light up in our hands.
Jumping forward another couple decades I got to experience the magic of synchronous fireflies in the mountains. Though you can plan a visit to catch the annual experience, I stumbled upon them by accident while primitive camping. My friend and I set up our tent in a clearing away from the forest’s edge. Thankfully — and she still thanks me 25 years later — she accompanied me in the middle of the night when I was too nervous to go out alone to relieve myself. It was then in the dark of the night that we saw what looked like thousands of Christmas lights in the trees. It was a sight to see!
And I do so hope that our generation and the generations to follow will continue to be able to experience the phenomenon. Unfortunately, artificial lights, or light pollution, are taking a toll on the fireflies. According to a study done in 2019, fireflies are attracted to bright LED lights, but the lighting reduces courtship behaviors and also reduces mating success. Fireflies rely on ambient light cues to know when to start courtship flashing, but it becomes a problem when the environment is always lighted. Courtship behaviors go down and breeding success is also likely to go down. That means fewer fireflies for us to marvel over.
Fireflies aren’t the only creatures affected by light pollution. Our migratory birds are, too. Every year, billions of birds migrate north in the spring and back south in the fall. I only recently learned that most of them make this remarkable and perilous journey at night, many using the stars in the night sky to set their course. Isn’t that AMAZING?! However, as they pass over big cities on their way, they can become disoriented by bright artificial lights and skyglow, which can cause them to collide with buildings or windows.
What really is light pollution? Most of us are familiar with pollutants in our air and water, and the garbage polluting our land, but light can also be a pollutant. Simply put, it’s an excessive or inappropriate use of artificial light that can harm human health, animal health, and ecosystems. Most of it comes from outdoor lighting, advertisements, and streetlights. Another major source is indoor light from large buildings like office towers.
Obviously, I’m a concerned citizen. I’m also a volunteer with Lights Out of Wake Audubon working with the City of Raleigh and hopefully soon the Town of Cary in Audubon’s national effort to reduce the problem of light pollution. It’s commendable that more and more cities are wanting to act and make a difference that helps our environment and protects our wildlife. How about we start in our backyards?
I know many homeowners have lights in their front and back yards. I suspect that most think the lights are a safety feature against crime. However, according to the International Dark Sky Association (darksky.org), “There is no clear scientific evidence that increased outdoor lighting deters crimes. It may make us feel safer but has not been shown to make us safer. The truth is bad outdoor lighting can decrease safety by making victims and property easier to see.”
The fact is, most property crime occurs in the light of the day. I know from my experience years ago writing for a Florida newspaper that brazen daytime home burglaries were reported more frequently than nighttime incidents. And some crimes like vandalism and graffiti actually thrive on night lighting.
This doesn’t mean you have to abandon all lighting in your yard and on the exterior of your home. “A dark sky does not necessarily mean a dark ground. Smart lighting that directs light where it is needed creates a balance between safety and starlight,” says the International Dark Sky Association.
Here are some steps that we can readily take to contribute to Lights Out and reduce light pollution in our neighborhoods, which ultimately helps migrating birds, fireflies, and helps us to see the starry night sky. (Oh, did I mention that I’m a stargazer, too?!)
Light pollution is a waste of energy and money and affects each of us. Thankfully, concern about light pollution is rising among homeowners, environmental groups, scientists, and civic leaders. Join me in doing our parts to combat this problem, starting in our own backyards!