Did you know holiday light displays can affect the environment? Here’s how Summit County can help with that.

Holiday lights twinkle in Breckenridge’s Blue River Plaza on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. According to Colorado Chapter President of the International Dark Skies Association, Aaron Watson, holiday lights can increase light pollution and negatively impact human and wildlife health.
Liz Copan/Summit Daily News archive

The White River National Forest is an inherent part of Summit County’s natural landscape. Due to the proximity, many of Summit’s towns and neighborhoods are surrounded by the forest’s treeline. This means moose, fox, deer and other animal sightings are a common occurrence for Summit residents.

It also means that Summit County residents are encouraged to lock trash cans to keep bears from breaking in or to not leave fires unattended to prevent the risk of a forest fire.

During the holiday season, it turns out that there’s one more thing folks in Summit County can do to protect the environment.

With Christmas only a month away, some may be unpacking decorations to begin setting up holiday lights or displays. 

However, those Christmas lights could potentially affect surrounding wildlife as well as human health, according to Aaron Watson, Colorado chapter president of the International Dark Skies Association. 

Watson said the holiday lights can contribute to three main things. The first is light pollution. 

Watson explained that man-made light can be seen from space. During the holiday season, meaning between Christmas and the New Year, the increase of light pollution seen from space increases between 20% and 50%, according to NASA. 

“What that translates to on the ground is — increased artificial light, increased sky glow, so it’s gonna … dilute the view of the stars, and it’s just going to make it brighter in your areas and towns,” Watson said. 

Jess Hoover, the climate action director at the High Country Conservation Center, said Summit County’s local energy use is the highest of the year in January, according to trends from 2015 to 2020. 

Both wildlife and humans are affected by this increase. With humans, Watson said it affects production of melatonin, what he called the “darkness hormone,” which is triggered when humans are exposed to darkness.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, melatonin is naturally produced by our bodies close to bedtime. Watson said it’s not guaranteed that folks will be affected, but he says exposure to artificial light has been linked to sleep problems and holiday lights may contribute to this issue.

“Holiday lights aren’t that bad with one person, but when you have thousands or even millions of people doing it at the same time, it really has a big impact,” Watson said. 

Tents under the stars in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Saturday night.
Hugh Carey / |

When it comes to wildlife, “every species that’s been studied has had a negative effect from light pollution, hands down,” Watson said. 

Watson said bird migration patterns are affected by artificial light, but during winter predator-prey patterns are more of a concern. 

“Certain species will be drawn to the light, like deer — they go to the light because they feel safer in the light, whereas predators like foxes and coyotes … they will avoid the light,” Watson said. He explained that this phenomenon shifts predator and prey dynamics. 

“That shifts the whole habitat of what’s going on and how the animals interact with each other,” Watson explained. 

Instead of avoiding holiday decorations, Watson says that there are steps people can take to lessen the impact on the local environment. One of them is limiting how long they have their displays out. 

He added that because holidays are supposed to be “special,” cutting the amount of time they are on display can add to the occasion. 

Folks can also cut the number of lumens, or the amount of light projected by the decorations. 

“You only want to really use as much as you need,” Watson said.

He recommended that the brightest folks should go is about 800 lumens. The number of lumens can be found on most LED light boxes, but 800 lumens is about the same amount as brightness as a 60-watt bulb.

Another factor Watson said to consider is the color temperature of the bulb. Watson said to avoid colors like blue or “pure white” because those colors have a higher frequency. Instead, he recommends buying colors like red, amber or yellow, which mimic the natural environment.

“It has way less of an effect on our night vision and way less of an effect on the environment,” Watson said. 

Hoover also encourages folks to use LED lights instead of incandescent lights to cut down on energy use.

“We do know that switching to LED holiday lights from incandescent lights saves a significant amount of energy. Typically, LEDs are 80% more efficient than incandescent lights,” Hoover said in an email. 

Hoover added that outlet timers are a great way to cut down on energy.

“Your lights are beautiful, but they don’t need to be on at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Hoover said. “So it will save you energy to have them on a timer and not be running all night long.”

Watson said one nice aspect of addressing light pollution is when you turn the lights off, the pollution goes away.

“As soon as you turn them off, you’re back into that pristine environment and you can bring the environment back,” Watson said. 

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