Published On: Fri, Oct 6th, 2017

Yearly 9/11 Tribute Shows Light Pollution’s Effects on Birds


A study quantified the effects on birds when the September 11 “Tribute in Light’s” beams are switched on.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

Scientists have long known that artificial light can attract and disorient birds at night, causing collisions and wreaking mischief with their migratory path. Now, the annual September 11 “Tribute in Light Memorial” in Manhattan has provided a unique opportunity to study and quantify the effect.

The multiyear study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that birds gathered in greater densities, flew repeatedly in circles and vocalized loudly when the memorial’s powerful beams were illuminated.

However, when the lights were turned off for brief periods, the birds were quick to resume their normal flight paths and behaviors. Although the researchers were not calling for any changes to the annual event, their findings suggest a simple fix for ongoing light pollution in other places.

“Wherever we can turn lights off at night, we should be doing it,” said Andrew Farnsworth, an ornithologist with Cornell University and an author of the study, which claims to be the first to quantify bird responses to urban nighttime light.

Illuminating the Effects of Light Pollution

Unlike many environmental issues, light pollution is a problem researchers say could disappear with the flick of a switch.

Researchers from Cornell and the New York City Audubon Society have been monitoring the memorial, which consists of two pillars of 44 spotlights aimed directly upward to simulate the fallen Twin Towers, since it was first presented in 2002. In 2008, the team began using radar and acoustic sensors to track how many birds the light was attracting and how it affected their behavior.

In 2010, the beams attracted so many birds that the researchers convinced the memorial’s operators to turn off the lights for 20 minute intervals, which presented “a unique opportunity” to study “behavior in birds when these incredibly powerful lights were on versus when they were off,” said Dr. Farnsworth. The lights were briefly extinguished again in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016.

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