Sea turtles illustrate the harmful effects of light pollution

Renowned photographer Jim Richardson used examples from nature to explain how too much light affects all kinds of life.

Jim Richardson has been all over the world.  He’s published photos for over 25 stories in National Geographic and he's taken pictures from Kansas to Scotland.  But Richardson doesn’t flaunt his travels.  Rather, he started off his lecture at Hendrick’s Chapel on Tuesday night by showing us a place we all share, but so often forget — our place among the stars. 

"We live here,” Richardson said, pointing to a photo of a starry night.  “We live in the galaxy up there, the Great Milky Way." 

Statistics show that 80 percent of children today will never see the Milky Way again, Richardson said.  As beautiful as that trickling river of diamonds is up there, light pollution is affecting more than just the future generation's ability to see these magnificent sights.  It’s affecting all life … including the lives of sea turtles. 

Turtles are dealing with plenty of human-induced problems.  Global warming is causing sea levels to rise, which means fewer beaching areas for nests. And because a turtle's sex is dependent on the temperature outside the egg before it hatches, female turtles may dominate the species as the ocean temperatures increase. This will severely cut back on the turtles' ability to reproduce.  Light pollution is only adding to the mix of problems.  Houses that emit lots of light on shorelines cause some leatherbacks to stop nesting there.  Other times it confuses hatchlings, so that instead of shimmying towards the sea, turtles will move toward the lights. 

Richardson used the sea turtle to illustrate how deeply humans have impacted the environment in the short time we've been on Earth. 

“This turtle and its ancestors have been coming to that very beach for 100 million years,” he said.  “They have been coming here since before here was here.  Continents have moved and crashed into each other during the time they had been coming back to this scene.  In just the last 100 years, it changes because of us.”

Richardson said he hopes that by switching some of the types of streetlights, shutting off unnecessary lights more diligently and having a day where the world turns off its lights for 24 hours, we can bring more attention to the problem and consider ways to help alleviate light pollution.  In Cuba, Kansas, Richardson got the entire town to power down.  He took a photo of before the lights went out, and after. 

Surprisingly with the lights off, the moon lit up the countryside more brightly than the streetlights.

“This is some of what we’ve been losing, over this amount of time,” Richardson said.  

Read more of The NewsHouse's coverage of Richardson's talk.

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