In the summer of 1999 I visited the World Trade Center, going up the elevator to Windows on The World. I often wondered if the jovial elevator operator was on duty that Tuesday morning two years later.
September 11th (I feel more comfortable referring to it by that name than 9/11, but that’s just me) is here again, a date that is seared on the memory of so many. I know there have been worse disasters, and worse things perpetrated before and perhaps since, but some of the visceral impact of that day was this was a familiar place, a place I could easily visualise.
All this leads me to an interesting article on the Cornell Lab for Ornithology’s All About Birds site, on how the annual Tribute in Light, the scale of which I hadn’t fully appreciated before, affects migrating birds and the steps taken to ameliorate this.
Even in a city of skyscrapers, the Tribute in Light is colossal: twin columns of blue-white light shining four miles high into the bruised orange-black bowl of the night sky. With clear weather in New York City, the beams are crisply visible from 60 miles away. Illuminated every September 11 since 2002, the Tribute is an iconic and emotional memorial to the lives lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a symbol of New York City’s unbreakable spirit. It is a beacon in more ways than one. Birds are drawn to the lights, at times by the thousands. On September 11th, 2017, I was drawn to the lights by the birds.
At sunset, I join a small gathering of people on top of a six-story parking garage near Wall Street. At the entrance to the upper deck, I pass the event production staff supervising the display, conferring over a bevy of laptops and switchboards. To the eastern side of the roof, rescue workers and families of the victims of 9/11 congregate near a long white tent over a dinner buffet. Opposite, to the west, New York City Audubon staff and volunteers gather. Dominating the roof are the spotlights: 88 in total, separated into two square arrays to the north and south, twenty parking spaces apart. As lighting technicians check their snaking cables, the beams wink with dust motes and the looping flight of insects. There are few vertical light installations in North America of the magnitude of the Tribute. Only the Luxor Sky Beam in Las Vegas, Nevada, compares. I crane my head back, looking for birds, but quickly drop my gaze, dizzy. From afar, the Tribute is a powerful spectacle. Standing below the beams, it’s staggering.
The writer goes on to spend the night on September 11th 2017 with the local Audubon Society members who have access to the site. A protocol has been developed to minimise the disruption to migration:
NYC Audubon started communication with city officials in 2002 and negotiated access to the site, a distinction already granted to the families of those lost in the terrorist attacks. But it was not until 2005 that a partnership arose, with the production team agreeing to turn off lights if need be. In 2007, NYC Audubon proposed the official protocol: If one or more birds crashes to the ground, dead; if the birds appear to be trapped (flying low in the beams and calling); or, if 1,000 birds are in the beams for more than a 20-minute period; then the lights are shut off for 20 minutes, to allow them to fly on.
“It needed to be a big number because we’re asking a lot,” Elbin says, “I can hear our members screaming at me, ‘They’re not asking enough!’ But this is a number that satisfies everyone that doesn’t necessarily care about birds.”
Elbin identifies 2010 as the year that “really drove home the issue” to everyone involved. That year, poor weather leading up to September 11 held up migration. With clear weather the night of the Tribute, birds came early and in huge numbers. Elbin was at a family reunion when she received a phone call from John Rowden, then the director of community conservation for NYC Audubon.
“John called and said, ‘It’s crazy, Susan,’” Elbin recalls. “He said, ‘Birds are so low I can see them directly.’”
That night, NYC Audubon found their first fatality: a Pine Warbler, dead on the street below the parking garage.
The article goes on to discuss the scientific potential of this extraordinary memorial, in the context of an increasingly light polluted world:
To live in New York City—and, increasingly, to live on our planet in the places where most humans live—is to live in light, day and night. Over three-quarters of the world’s human population and all but 1 percent of Europeans and North Americans sleep under the luminous fog of artificial light, most of which is inefficiently used, improperly shielded, overly bright, and often unnecessary. What a loss of stars will mean for human health and culture is still unfolding, but it is increasingly obvious that it is detrimental to the nightlife, sex life, and migratory journeys of amphibians, fish, insects, and especially birds. Birds now navigate a new and deeply confusing world, the guidance of the sunrise, sunset, moon, and stars replaced by a nocturnal landscape dominated by electric light.