Has Light Pollution Wiped Out the Arthropods?

Is it possible that the vast and consistent decline in the numbers of insects and other arthropods is due to our ever-increasing use of artificial, electric lights at night?

If so, then we are in really big trouble — but we can solve it, by turning out the lights!

Apparently I’m not the only person worried about this idea, which came to me when I thought about the enormous quantities of bugs I used to see 50 or 60 years ago every clear night, flying en masse to their deaths around every electric light bulb they could find. These days, my home’s outdoor lights (when on) seem to catch many, many fewer insects per hour than they did when we moved in 35 years ago… Surely those enormous numbers of dead insects around the outdoor lights must take a toll, and since artificial outdoor lighting is increasing world-wide at a rate of 2 to 6 percent per year, the effect is likely to have gotten more and more severe as time goes on.

Here are a couple of articles on the topic. This one you have to pay to read, unfortunately. This one cites the previous one, but gives a bit more information. Scientists at the University of Virginia are doing a long-term study on the effects of lighting on fireflies (aka lightning bugs): for one species, the females stopped responding to the light signals put out by the males if there was too much light; so if there are fewer female beetles answering, then there will be fewer eggs and smaller future generations. This web page goes into more details. I quote:

“There is an utterly magical time that occurs at tropical dusk. It is when the calls of birds wheeling overhead recede into the distance, and the constant pulse of insect and frog calls fills the air. The inflection point where both sounds are equal in volume coincides with a time when the failing light is ethereal. This heralds the other half of biodiversity, the nocturnal. Within the forest the phosphorescent light of Pyrhophorus beetles leaves green trails in their wake to tempt would be mates to follow. The eerie glow of bioluminescent fungi astonishes, but vanishes instantly in the light of a headlamp. The pale moonlight gives reflected glimpse of bats trolling the surface of oxbow lakes. Overhead one can gaze into black velvet sky to see stars, and comets and the cosmos beyond. This is the stuff dreams are made of.

Other forms of light are less benign to the magic of the forest. The first lights that send their electrical call in wild places draw myriads of insects. A riot of color, form and diversity that is impossible to imagine in advance. But the insects attracted to the electrical beacons will dwindle over time. Every week there will be fewer and fewer. This is because a great many die at dawn. Birds, toads and mammals quickly learn that there is a ready meal at the lights every morning, and that there is nowhere for the transfixed nocturnal denizens to hide. Ants too are regulars at the lights. With organized effectiveness they incessantly carry away the disoriented, the wounded and the dead. There are further consequences of artificial light as well.

Even the most urbanized person cannot fail to pause at the sight of butterflies. Butterflies are insects that require light of the sun to fly, to reproduce, and to flourish. Daylight is their realm. Nonetheless, a major part of their life cycle, the caterpillar, is a creature often active only at night. To find many caterpillars one must be armed with a flashlight and use the cover of night. The introduction of artificial lights in natural areas has a generous impact on the diversity, distribution and the abundance of butterflies. With electric lights come the roads. With roads come vehicles, people, habitat destruction and more lights. This is quickly attended by a reduction in the species of both adult butterflies and the food plants their caterpillars depend on for survival. The area becomes the realm of common weeds, and this reduces butterfly diversity even more. Fewer plant species equates with fewer butterfly species. This is not illusion or fancy, but common sense that even a child can grasp and measure its truth.

I never thought that so many places dreamed of in my youth could be marked so deeply by the human hand. Crucial details embodied in the concept of forest held by our predecessors are lost by each passing human generation. I understand that during my grandparent’s lifetime large carnivores, herds of elephants, and vast expanses of tropical wilderness were common. My experience has been less rich. Many times I’ve tried to imagine the tropical forests experienced by naturalists a century ago and concluded that they would be shocked at the current scale of decimation, and the intruding pervasiveness of electrical light. In their eyes, our concept of forest would lack depth and vitality. Where is the tropical wilderness? When its absence is finally recognized will we try to reconstruct it like historians who earnestly, but vainly attempt to recreate the vital spark of a culture that has passed from living memory? How will we account for and connect all the parts?

Wanton Waste and Pollution of the Air and Light and Soil

Can you figure out why is the northwestern corner of North Dakota lit up almost as bright as Manhattan?

I’m pretty sure I know.

And if you would like to see, in detail, what massive light pollution, air pollution, and increasing the CO2 content of the atmosphere looks like, you’ve come to the right place.

The map here is unique. I found it on  http://www.blue-marble.de/nightlights/2012 which allows you to see what the world looks like at night. As you might expect, big cities and their suburbs are all lit up, and remote, unpopulated places are mostly dark.

But there are some places way out in the boonies that are entirely toooo bright. Like northwestern North Dakota, as I hope you can see below.

waste and light pollution in north dakota

Part of that enormous blob of yellow in the center of the image is the super-bright lights on the oil rigs of the current North Dakota oil boom. The lighting, while probably rather cheaply and wastefully done, I at least understand. Drilling for oil in general, and fracking in particular, are dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs, and the work often goes on around the clock. Workers need to be able to see in order to be safe. However, I am sure that there are better lighting systems than ones that light up everything within 5 miles.

But that’s not the majority of that light.

Most of it is pure and simple waste.

Instead of bottling or piping out the natural gas (aka methane) that comes up along with the black,  oozing petroleum, they simply BURN OFF the gas.

It’s called “flaring”.

It’s a cold-blooded calculation by the corporate leadership: it is more profitable to them to burn up much of the gas than saving and selling it and using it later. So they light up enormous plumes that  light up the sky, literally 24/7, adding humongous amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and warming up the planet both directly and indirectly. And turning that part of the Great Plains into something resembling Dante’s Inferno.

Oil companies say they are selflessly pursuing “energy independence” for the US.

Don’t you believe it. They are selfishly pursuing profits. If they were really interested in simply producing more energy for the good citizens of the USA or wherever, then all of that gas would be bottled up or saved to be used later in our stoves, heating systems, factories, or vehicles, where people need it.

Instead of burning it off for nothing.

What a waste.

That’s capitalism in a nutshell.

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Quoting from the NYT: (2011)

NEW TOWN, N.D. — Across western North Dakota, hundreds of fires rise above fields of wheat and sunflowers and bales of hay. At night, they illuminate the prairie skies like giant fireflies.

They are not wildfires caused by lightning strikes or other acts of nature, but the deliberate burning ofnatural gas by oil companies rushing to extract oil from the Bakken shale field and take advantage of the high price of crude. The gas bubbles up alongside the far more valuable oil, and with less economic incentive to capture it, the drillers treat the gas as waste and simply burn it.

Every day, more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared this way — enough energy to heat half a million homes for a day.

The flared gas also spews at least two million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, as much as 384,000 cars or a medium-size coal-fired power plant would emit, […]

All told, 30 percent of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is burned as waste. No other major domestic oil field currently flares close to that much, though the practice is still common in countries like Russia, Nigeria and Iran.

With few government regulations that limit the flaring, more burning is also taking place in the Eagle Ford shale field in Texas, and some environmentalists and industry executives say that it could happen in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Ohio, too, as drilling expands in new fields there unlocked by techniques like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

“North Dakota is not as bad as Kazakhstan, but this is not what you would expect a civilized, efficient society to do: to flare off a perfectly good product just because it’s expensive to bring to market,” said Michael E. Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

If you’d like to see close up photos of flaring, look at NYT here.

Published in: on January 28, 2013 at 2:53 pm  Comments (5)  
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