Dimmable lights and data-harvesting apps offer hope in the fight to protect wildlife

A turtle hatchling on Heron Island, Australia. A local council in Queensland is trialing new measures to stop hatchlings becoming disoriented by artificial lights.

Ignacio Palacios | Stone | Getty Images

Artificial lighting is crucial to modern life; it enables factories and warehouses to operate continuously, has led to the development of night-time economies worth billions of dollars, and allows us to carry out long distance journeys after the sun sets. 

It can, however, be detrimental to the natural world. According to the UN Environment Programme, “lighting disrupts photosynthesis and the activities of insects, birds and other animals.”

As concerns about sustainability and the environment grow, some initiatives attempting to mitigate lighting’s effects on the natural world are turning to technology.

Last week, a local council in Queensland, Australia said it was trialing new measures to stop turtle hatchlings from becoming disoriented by artificial lights.

Livingstone Shire Council said it had worked with Ergon Energy to install four amber-colored street lights on an esplanade. An interesting aspect of the pilot scheme, which will run throughout the hatchling season, is that the new lights can be remotely dimmed.

The idea is to reduce the “glow” from land, with the council explaining that artificial lighting could “interfere with a turtle’s ability to see the natural horizon” and cause the hatchlings to become “disorientated and veer from their path.”

In a separate announcement, a firm called National Narrowband Network Communications, or NNNCo, said it was providing the network connectivity for the scheme.

“Smart street lighting can provide cities and communities with significant energy and cost savings, but now we’re also seeing life-giving benefits like this one,” Rob Zagarella, the CEO of NNNCo said.

Technological solutions

The latest scheme is an example of how technology and conservation are becoming increasingly intertwined. At the Zoological Society of London, a wide range of innovations have been used to assist conservation efforts.

These include the development of an app which “transmits live video and images from motion triggered cameras … in key wildlife habitats around the world to users’ smartphones.” 

Data gathered through the app can then be used by scientists to “track key information on threatened species, from the size of animal populations to evidence of wildlife crime.”

When it comes to lighting and its relationship with animals, the Australian government is attempting to establish a framework for how to tackle the issue.

In January, it published a wide-ranging report entitled “National Light Pollution Guidelines for Wildlife Including marine turtles, seabirds and migratory shorebirds,” in which it laid out several principles of best practice for lighting and design.

One of these relates to the use of adaptive controls, stating that smart controls and LED lighting enable, among other things: the remote managing of lights; the deployment of motion sensors; and the ability to control the color of light.

Knowledge is power

Peter Harrison is technical director at the U.K.-based Institution of Lighting Professionals.

He emphasized the importance of knowledge and access to information, explaining that a program was needed to “educate the general public and specifiers that care needs to be taken in the selection and use of lighting.”

“Many cheap products from DIY chains, wholesalers and from online suppliers have little, if any advice about how to install lighting products or how much light is necessary,” he said in comments sent to CNBC via email.

LEDs, Harrison said, used electronics to produce light and could “be adapted to facilitate dimming.”

This would allow light to be produced and adjusted in relation to where and when it was needed, and “controlled to avoid nuisance to humans or the environment.”

Back in Queensland, Livingstone Shire Council is also asking local residents to aid its efforts to protect turtle hatchlings. They’re being asked, if possible, to take a number of steps from 7:30 p.m. each evening to mitigate the effects of artificial lighting.

These include turning unnecessary lights off, using motion-activated lights externally, and planting out vegetation in order to “create a light barrier.”

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