Follow the Birds

February 12, 2017
By Damond Benningfield
Episode:

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Laysan albatross with a newly hatched chick. Credit: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, John Klavitter

One of the joys of an afternoon at the beach is watching the seabirds as they soar with the winds. But such bird watching might serve as more than just entertainment. A recent study found that tracking seabirds as they fly along the coastline can reveal the speed and direction of the wind — important details for weather forecasts and climate models.

Today, scientists track winds over the oceans with satellites and buoys. But both techniques have limits. Satellites measure wide areas, so they miss the details, and they’re over any given area only a couple of times a day. And buoys measure conditions over a limited area. That makes it tough to measure winds along the coast, which can vary dramatically depending on time or location.

So an international team of researchers found a possible new way to measure winds. They placed tiny GPS devices on three species of birds — the streaked shearwater and two types of albatross — then tracked the birds for several days.

After retrieving the trackers, they compared the birds’ ground speed to their direction of flight. Those details allowed the researchers to estimate the winds. They then compared their estimates to records of winds from satellites and other sources. The estimates matched the actual recorded wind conditions.

That suggests that tracking birds in flight could be a new tool for measuring the winds along the world’s coasts — details that could improve our knowledge of Earth’s weather and climate, and our ability to predict both.