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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Red Light. Green Light.

April 22, 2009

Each spring and fall, a grisly spectacle plays out above the North Sea. As millions of migrating birds fly overhead, the lights of offshore oil and gas installations throw the birds off course. Some birds die in collisions with the installations, while others spend hours circling until exhaustion forces them to fall from the sky. Hundreds of disoriented birds congregate on the installations’ decks, and some stay long enough to die of starvation. Now, a group of European researchers has come up with a surprisingly simple solution: green light bulbs.

Two Dutch companies, Royal Philips Electronics and Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij BV, an oil and gas company, set out to develop lights that wouldn’t interfere with the birds but would still provide adequate illumination for oil and gas workers to do their jobs safely. Field tests confirmed earlier findings that blue or green light is much less disorienting to birds than red or white—possibly because the shorter wavelengths are less disruptive to a bird’s magnetic compass.

Blue light was the least distracting to birds, but it was uncomfortable for workers. Green light is almost as innocuous as blue and actually enhances people’s depth perception. So a compromise was struck, and the researchers developed new lights around a spectrum that includes lots of green and just a little red, which ensures workers can see emergency equipment if they need it.

The lights are now being tested on a North Sea gas platform. So far, workers seem to be happy, and the number of migratory birds lingering near the rig has been cut to somewhere between one-half and one-tenth the original number. Whether the new lights are equally copacetic for other nearby organisms remains to be seen.

The lights could eventually be installed on all North Sea rigs; researchers believe such a move would reduce the number of impacted birds from roughly 6 million to about 600,000. And there are plenty of other good places to put them. Airports, highways, and a host of other lighted structures wreak havoc on bird populations. The new bulbs present a solution that’s far more likely to succeed than asking the world to flip the “off” switch. ❧ —Rebecca Kessler

Photos courtesy of Philips Electronics North America

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