Sky lanterns – lovely or litter?
From left, teacher Allison Misiewicz, Kacey Ogline, Joe Mays,
Griffin Donnelly, Becca Roat and Maria Liebert, St. Stephen’s
students who are working on scientific experiments testing
how sky lanterns affect marine life.
Sky lanterns have lit a fire under Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring Director Suzi Fox, who is working with area science students beginning this week to study how long it takes them to disappear from the environment.
The lanterns, released at beach weddings and other celebrations, are made of wire or wood frames, paper, string and candles that heat the air inside the paper, making them airborne like hot air balloons.
But when the flames go out, the lanterns become litter, falling on the ground, in the water, or in sea oats and trees, where they can cause fires or entangle or be ingested by sea turtles, shorebirds and other marine life, Fox said.
Lights are illegal on the beach during sea turtle nesting season, May 1 to Oct. 31, and fires and fireworks are illegal on the beach all year long, so sky lanterns should not be used on the Island, Fox said, adding that lanterns are litter.
At Anna Maria Elementary School’s Peace Day in 2011, a sky lantern became entangled in a tree, but fire department volunteers present for the celebration recovered it before any damage was done.
Two years ago, sky lanterns used at a wedding at the Powel Crosley estate landed on runways and shut down air traffic at Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport; lanterns are now banned at the Crosley.
While it does not mention sky lanterns by name, Florida Statute 379.233 prohibits the release of “10 or more balloons inflated with a gas that is lighter than air” within a 24-hour period; violators can incur $250 fines. The law allows for the release of balloons approved as biodegradable or photo degradable by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, but an FWC spokeswoman said the agency has not approved any.
Fox suspects the lanterns are not as biodegradable as manufacturers say, and she has enlisted the help of elementary and high school science students at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton to do experiments to see how long it takes the materials to dissolve.
The students will identify real world problems caused by sky lanterns and design their own experiments to study them, upper school science teacher Allison Misiewicz said.
They may test the durability and composition of the lantern’s materials, their rate of decomposition, and whether animals of certain sizes can get trapped in lanterns before they decompose, she said.
The study will be conducted for the next six to seven months, and students will report their findings, which could lead to a list of best practices for using the lanterns, she said.
Turtle Watch is funding the project and plans to publish a paper on the results, Fox said.
Turtles make tracks
Last week, more than 1,300 sea turtle hatchlings safely made it to the Gulf of Mexico from their Anna Maria Island nests.
Ten more nests have been laid this year than the record of 362 nests in 2012, and 145 more nests have hatched than the 175 that hatched in that record year, when storms destroyed many of the nests.
Hatchlings in at least three nests drowned during unrelenting storms last week that flooded the nests, according to Suzi Fox, director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring, adding that no nests are thought to have been washed out to sea.
There are 52 nests to go before turtle season ends on Oct. 31. At an average of 65 hatchlings per nest, that’s another 3,380 hatchlings to be hatched, so keep those beachfront lights out.