News / USA

Weather Radar Tracks Bats, Birds, Bugs

America’s 156-station network provides continent-wide picture of life in the sky

Brazilian free-tailed bats in flight as they emerge from a cave in Texas.
Brazilian free-tailed bats in flight as they emerge from a cave in Texas.

Multimedia

Audio
Rosanne Skirble

The sky is full of life. Now a Boston University biologist is taking a cue from weather forecasters by using radar to get a fuller picture of what happens high above the ground.



"The technology has improved things to the extent that we can see things that we couldn’t see before," says Tom Kunz, who also puts tiny transmitters on bats and birds and uses special thermal imaging tools to track them.

Kunz stumbled on the idea of using radar when he heard about radar stations in Texas that had mistakenly switched from the weather-only mode to the clear-air channel. That signal includes what Kunz calls bio-scatter: bats, birds and bugs. The operators were at first puzzled because they saw clouds on what was a clear night.  

Tom Kunz trapping bats in Framingham, Mass.
Tom Kunz trapping bats in Framingham, Mass.

"And the clouds spread out and about midnight they came back again." Kunz says what the radar showed was clouds of bats on their nocturnal feeding.

Meteorologists routinely filter out the atmospheric bio-mass to make weather predictions.  Kunz regards those readings from America’s 156 radar-station network as a continent-wide link to a previously untapped trove of biological information.

"We can actually determine where and when bats or birds are moving across the landscape and use that information to help design locations for wind turbines which would not then be killing as many bats and birds as they are now," he says.

Radar data is updated every five minutes and researchers have access to 20 years of archived data.

Kunz and postdoctoral fellow Winifred Frick, at the University of California Santa Cruz, have started posting that information on an Website called SOAR, short for Surveillance of Aeroecology using weather Radars.  

Frick says SOAR is a work in progress which continually surprises her, like the night she logged on to watch a Texas bat cave and saw a wave of insects trapped in an air mass in front of the cave.

"The air mass passed over the bat caves right at sunset and the bats come out and they just forage right along it. It’s like a big buffet line of insects for them," says Frick. "That’s behavior we’ve never seen before because these guys are flying at night and how are we going to observe that if we didn’t have a tool like radar."

A NOAA mobile storm-chasing radar vehicles is deployed outside a bat cave at dusk.
A NOAA mobile storm-chasing radar vehicles is deployed outside a bat cave at dusk.

Frick spoke on a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science with Tom Kunz and University of Oklahoma meteorologist Philip Chilson. She explains the pressing question that brought the three together: "Do you think we could estimate the number of bats in a bat cloud? Oh? Sure.  So that actually initiated this collaboration."

That collaboration set in motion an experiment that could measure radio waves reflected from a single bat, much in the same way radio waves had been calculated from a single raindrop.

Knowing the density of those nightly forays, Frick says, could help advance studies in animal behavior, migration patterns and regional biosphere responses to shifts in climate over time and space.

Among his bat tracking tools Boston University bat expert Thomas Kunz uses thermal imaging and weather radar.
Among his bat tracking tools Boston University bat expert Thomas Kunz uses thermal imaging and weather radar.

"So we can look at a number of different sites all at once.  And that will give us a really good picture about the health of these populations. And this particular species, Brazilian free-tailed bats, does an enormous job for agriculture in terms of eating agricultural crop pests."

Frick sees great promise in the use of radar to chart the biosphere and welcomes collaborators to help move the technology forward. She is also hoping that on some clear cloudless evening the local weathercaster will decide to turn on the bio-scatter radar channel and report on the overhead clouds of bats.

You May Like

Video Drug Use Rises in Afghanistan

Ninety percent of world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan More

Here's Your Chance to Live in a Deserted Shopping Mall

About one-third of the 1200 enclosed malls in the US are dead or dying. Here's what's being done with them. More

Video NASA: Big Antarctica Ice Shelf Is Disintegrating

US space agency’s new study indicates Larsen B shelf could break up in just a few years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriagei
X
May 21, 2015 4:14 AM
The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.
Video

Video Women to March for Peace Between Koreas

Prominent female activists from around the world plan to march through the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea to call for peace between the two neighbors, divided for more than 60 years. The event, taking place May 24, marks the International Women's Day for Peace and Disarmament and has been approved by both Koreas. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug Use Rises in Afghanistan Following Record High Poppy Crops

Afghanistan has seen record high poppy crops during the last few years - and the result has been an alarming rise in illegal drug use and addiction in the war-torn country. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem has this report from Kabul.
Video

Video America’s Front Lawn Gets Overhaul

America’s front yard is getting a much-needed overhaul. Almost two kilometers of lawn stretch from the U.S. Capitol to the Washington Monument. But the expanse of grass known as the National Mall has taken a beating over the years. Now workers are in the middle of restoring the lush, green carpet that fronts some of Washington’s best-known sights. VOA’s Steve Baragona took a look.

VOA Blogs