Unintended Consequences of Energy Saving

Black Marble 2016: Composite global map created from data acquired by VIIRS in 2016. Image courtesy of NASA/NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Last month a report in Science Advances got a lot of publicity as it described the increase in global light pollution following research using satellite data. Even more interesting was the fact that one of the key drivers, although not the only one, was the switch to LED lights which have mainly being bought in due to their increased energy efficiency.

Recently there has been a lot of night-time imagery released as photographs taken from the International Space Station, and we’ve used them in our blogs. However, night time imagery has also been collected from the uncalibrated Operational Linescan System (OLS) on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites for a number of years. This was followed by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) research mission in 2011 that carries the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) which had a planned life expectancy of around five years, however it is still in orbit and continues to collect data. Much more recently, on the 18th November 2017, a second VIIRS instrument was launched aboard the NOAA-20 satellite (previously called JPSS-1).

The role of LED lights in the increase in light pollution was described in detail in the paper ‘Artificially lit surface of Earth at night increasing in radiance and extent’ by Kyba et al which was published on the 22nd November 2017. The paper was based on satellite data collected between 2012 and 2016 from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) aboard the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite and one of the key drivers behind the new research is that VIIRS offered the first calibrated and georeferenced night time radiance global dataset. Within the 22 spectral bands the instrument measures is a day/night panchromatic band (DNB). This band has a 750 m spatial resolution and operates on a whiskbroom approach with a swath of approximately 3,000 km which means it provides global coverage twice a day, visiting every location at 1:30 pm and 1:30 am (local time).

The team from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences who did the research concluded that outdoor light pollution has increased by 11% over 5 years. However, for us, the really interesting part was that new LED lights are linked to this increase in light pollution.

Over the last decade within the UK, a lot of local Councils have switched to using LED streetlights mainly due to the energy, and associated cost, savings. However, there was also a message that this would reduce light pollution as they would direct light downwards and reduce nightglow. This is coupled with the fact that businesses and consumers have also been pushed to move towards this type of light for the same reasons. This was brought home to us recently as a firm opposite our home installed new outside LED lights. It has made a significant different to the amount of light in our room and even in the middle of the night it is never completely black.

What the research team found by comparing VIIRS images from 2012 and 2016 was that:

  • The lower cost of LED lights has actually led to more lights going up, mainly on the outskirts of towns and cities. A 2010 paper by Tsao et al published in Physics Today indicated that we tend to purchase as much artificial light as possible for around 0.7% of GDP and so as lighting becomes cheaper, the quantity increases.
  • Flat composite global map created from data acquired by VIIRS in 2016. Image courtesy of NASA/NASA’s Earth Observatory.

    There has been a shift in the spectra of artificial light within cities from the yellow/orange of the old streetlights to the white of LED’s.

  • The majority of countries of the world had seen an increase in light pollution. Although, perhaps surprisingly some of the world’s brightest nations such the US, UK, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Italy had stayed stable; which may suggest there is a point of saturation of outdoor lighting. The only countries that had less light pollution were areas of conflict or whether there was issue with the data, such as Australia where there were significant wildfires when the first data was collected.

Light pollution has a negative impact on flora and fauna, particularly nocturnal wildlife, and there is increasing evidence that it is also negative for humans. This is an example of why we have to be so careful with the concept of cause and effect. Decisions made for improved energy efficiency look to have had unintended consequences for light pollution.

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