Light Pollution Is Disrupting the Seasonal Rhythms of Plants and Trees

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Conversation: City lights that blaze all night are profoundly disrupting urban plants' phenology -- shifting when their buds open in the spring and when their leaves change colors and drop in the fall. New research I coauthored shows how nighttime lights are lengthening the growing season in cities, which can affect everything from allergies to local economies. In our study, my colleagues and I analyzed trees and shrubs at about 3,000 sites in U.S. cities to see how they responded under different lighting conditions over a five-year period. Plants use the natural day-night cycle as a signal of seasonal change along with temperature. We found that artificial light alone advanced the date that leaf buds broke in the spring by an average of about nine days compared to sites without nighttime lights. The timing of the fall color change in leaves was more complex, but the leaf change was still delayed on average by nearly six days across the lower 48 states. In general, we found that the more intense the light was, the greater the difference. [...] This kind of shift in plants' biological clocks has important implications for the economic, climate, health and ecological services that urban plants provide. On the positive side, longer growing seasons could allow urban farms to be active over longer periods of time. Plants could also provide shade to cool neighborhoods earlier in spring and later in fall as global temperatures rise. But changes to the growing season could also increase plants' vulnerability to spring frost damage. And it can create a mismatch with the timing of other organisms, such as pollinators, that some urban plants rely on. A longer active season for urban plants also suggests an earlier and longer pollen season, which can exacerbate asthma and other breathing problems. A study in Maryland found a 17% increase in hospitalizations for asthma in years when plants bloomed very early. The study has been published in the journal PNAS Nexus.

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