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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs