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Spring Awakening: Nighttime Light Pollution Causes Spring To Come Earlier

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Nighttime light pollution has caused spring to come earlier in the United Kingdom, at least a week in advance, a new study finds. Findings suggest that light pollution is messing up nature's schedule.

Scientists found that budburst happened up to 7.5 days in advance among trees located in areas where nighttime light pollution is higher. In fact, the ones that were most affected by the light pollution were the trees that naturally bud at a later time.

"We found that artificial lighting can accelerate tree leaves budding, and effectively the onset of spring, by a week. This has got to be bad for nature, particularly because of the knock-on effects," said one of the study's co-leads Professor Richard ffrench-Constant from the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus.

Apart from messing with Mother Nature's body clock, the authors believe that the early budding will likely affect the life cycles of birds and insects whose lives are in sync with the trees. For instance, caterpillars follow a hatching time so they can make the most out of feeding on freshly budded trees. The birds also follow a hatching schedule so they can eat young caterpillars. Wildlife could suffer due to the earlier budburst.

The findings can be helpful to officials who are in charge of the levels of artificial lighting. The research can lead to further investigations that can analyze the effects of various light quality as well as the different types of artificial lights' specific wavelengths.

The research is the result of a long-term collaboration with Spalding Associates' environmental consultants. The scientists used data that were gathered by citizen scientists from all over the UK. The data involved information as to when they first saw ash, beech, oak and sycamore trees bud. The project was part of the charity Woodland Trust's initiative called Nature's Calendar. Along with artificial light satellite images, the research team analyzed the data to see light pollution's impact on budding activities.

"This study also shows that we can use citizen science in a meaningful way and that it has a real role to play in research that can have a meaningful impact," said Peter McGregor, a behavioral ecologist from Cornwall College Newquay's Centre for Applied Zoology.

Past research analyzed the association between changes in animal behavior and light pollution. The recent study is the first one to delve into the effects of light pollution on plant phenology on a nationwide scale.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal on June 29.

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