It’s Christmas time: deck the halls and dim the lights

“What a bright time, it’s the right time to rock the night away.”

Bright and extravagant light displays have evidently become an irreplaceable sign of holiday cheer. In reality, such displays represent mass and mindless energy consumption. 

Holiday lights date back to Edward Johnson in 1882, but attained popularity in 1927 with the development of safe outdoor bulbs. 

The popularity of holiday lights burns on today. NASA satellite data shows that nighttime lights in many U.S. cities shine up to 50% brighter during the holidays than throughout the rest of the year. Since 2013, NASA scientists have detected holiday-light-induced brightness from outer space. This lavishness exists at the detriment of our environment, ecosystems and ultimately, our wallets.

According to energy bill data from Arcadia, a climate software and renewable energy company, Americans funnel $645 million into running holiday lights. 

This bill is accompanied by a frightening environmental price: the consumption of 3.5 billion kilowatt-hours in December alone, which equates to the emission of nearly two million tons of carbon dioxide. 

Since heightened energy bills and our slowly deteriorating planet have long-proven insufficient incentives to make change, the more immediate threat of light pollution should convince Americans to cut back on holiday lights this season.

Light pollution — the brightening of the night sky by man-made sources — poses the greatest direct harm to our communities. Holiday lights carry with them numerous consequences: harm to human health, wildlife and our ability to observe astronomical objects.

According to an article by National Geographic, artificial light upsets the circadian rhythm, the internal clock that determines day and night activities and influences physiological cycles. This internal clock regulates the melatonin hormone that tells our bodies when to sleep and eat, all while strengthening our immune system. 

Beyond our own health and wellness, the ecosystems that make San Diego the beautiful city we call home are also hit hard. 

In warmer climates like our own, where wildlife is more active in the winter, holiday lights pose a great threat. For nocturnal animals, artificial light “represents the most drastic change human beings have made to their environment,” Dr. Christopher Kyba, an artificial light pollution researcher at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, said in Dark Sky, an international association campaigning to reduce light pollution.

Many birds that hunt or migrate at night depend on moonlight to do so, and the presence of artificial light can cause them to wander into dangerous urban centers. Furthermore, these birds may migrate too soon or too late, missing ideal environmental conditions for settling or scavenging.

Birds are not the only wildlife threatened by these excessive displays. Scott Henke, a professor in the department of Rangeland Wildlife Fisheries Management at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, facilitated an experiment to observe changes in wildlife activity due to the December lights on campus. Henke tracked eastern fox squirrels and found that their foresting and sleep habits dramatically shifted as a result of the lights. Normally, these squirrels forage by day and retreat to their roosts before sunset, but with the introduction of intrusive artificial light, the squirrels foraged after sunset, putting them at greater risk of predation. 

The best way to reduce possible harm to the environment is by changing the type of lights we use. Switching incandescent bulbs to LED bulbs — which use 75% less energy — is the first step in conserving energy and mitigating CO2 emissions. 

Another method is to reserve white lights for indoors, as this will provide the least interference with wildlife. Red spotlights, on the other hand, are indistinguishable to animal eyes, making it the less disturbing option.

These small concessions are invaluable to the environment not only during  the holiday season but also as we look to the future.

Americans need to accept our harm to the planet, and what better time to do so than the season of giving and goodwill? 

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