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Festive light pollution can impact sleep patterns of humans and birds

Christmas lights.
Christmas lights. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

While light pollution is a persistent problem in Estonian cities, at Christmas the problem is increased by the festive lights used to decorate urban space. Light pollution affects not only people but also birds.

Tõnis Eenmäe, astrophysics researcher at the University of Tartu, told ETV show "Aktuaalne kaamera" that light pollution is a problem in Estonia. For humans, light pollution can disrupt sleep patterns, with Eenmäe adding that it can also inhibit the production of melatonin.

"If a room is white at night, or there is a brighter light, it starts to affect people's health over a longer period of time," Eenmäe explained.

During the holiday season however, the amount of light pollution resulting from Christmas lights is even greater. In addition to affecting humans, it also affects birds, for instance, whose night-time rhythms are likewise disrupted.

"It is known that birds' sleep patterns are affected by light in the same way as humans'. So, if a bird has too much white light in the city, be that from street lights or Christmas decorations, it can cause their sleep patterns to be disrupted. And if there is sleep disruption, we know that a bird will be a bit less able to cope during the day, because simply put, it is tired during the day," said Marko Mägi, a ornithologist at the University of Tartu.

Mägi explained that if birds are tired during the day, they are less able to search for good quality food and become easier prey for predators and other birds.

"Even the crows and seagulls we have in the city in winter could eat smaller birds if they are a bit tired and can't fly away," said Mägi.

According to both Mägi and Eenmäe, there is no need to entirely remove those Christmas lights. However, people should think carefully about how many they really need and when they should be switched on.

"Everyone can decide for themselves whether they need to light up their own windows so that it shines like they have another Christmas tree somewhere. So, if people themselves leave the lights off, then that's a big step forward," said Mägi.

"You can also think a little bit about how many people are outside at 3 o'clock in the morning. And from then, it's quite a few hours until morning, when people usually wake up. There's still a fair amount of time where nobody is actually seeing the beauty [of the lights]," said Eenmäe.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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