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Light pollution offers new global measure of coral reef health

We've all seen the satellite images of Earth at night--the bright blobs and shining webs that tell the story of humanity's endless sprawl.

These pictures are no longer just symbols of human impact, however, but can be used to objectively measure it, according to a study in the December 2008 issue of Geocarto International, a peer-reviewed journal on geoscience and remote sensing.

Travis Longcore, a USC geographer and expert in light pollution, collaborated with an international team, led by Christoph Aubrecht of the Austrian Research Centers, to develop the index.

"Coral reefs are incredibly importantbut unfortunately they're also incredibly fragile," Longcore said. "Using night light proximity, we were able to identify the most threatened and most pristine spots in an objective and easily repeatable way."

The researchers did this by first classifying the light into three separate sources: urban areas, gas flares and fishing boat activity.

Each of these sources puts stress on reefs: urban areas cause sewage and polluted runoff, oil platforms cause leakages and spills, and commercial fishing boats deplete marine life and impair the ecological balance.

The closer a reef is to one or more of these sources, the higher the index number and the greater the stress on the reefs.

While previous assessments of coral reef health, like the 1998 Reefs at Risk survey, considered more variables, the LPI yields similar results, Longcore added.

"As a first-pass global assessment, light pretty much correlates with human impact on the oceans," he explained.

Light's direct impact on coral reefs

In this way the index uses light as an indirect measure of coral reef health, which could help inform conservation policy.

But the LPI is also a direct measurement of coral reef stress, since light itself also affects marine life, according to the study.

"The lights themselve

Contact: Terah DeJong
University of Southern California

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