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.


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

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

This forum has been closed.
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.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs