A new study from NASA’s Internet of Animals (IoA) project has demonstrated that great frigatebirds can provide detailed sampling of the atmospheric layer located closest to Earth, where weather and climate directly impact humanity.
Great frigatebirds live in tropical regions and routinely fly to 2,000m (1.25 miles) in altitude, occasionally reaching heights of 4,000m (2.5 miles). The study shows that great frigatebirds equipped with tiny sensors can give detailed information about the planetary boundary layer (PBL), which is the dynamic atmospheric layer that is closest to Earth and where we experience weather, air quality and climate impacts.
“The planetary boundary layer (PBL) connects the atmosphere with the surface ocean, land and ice. It rises and falls throughout the day and many weather and climate processes are related to that fluctuation,” said Ian Brosnan, a marine scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who led the work. “So understanding PBL dynamics is fundamental to answering a lot of questions about the Earth system. Current techniques typically rely on ground-based measurements or remote sensing, but for far-flung regions over the oceans, getting in situ samples of any sort at scale is a challenge.”
Brosnan’s co-author, Morgan Gilmour, an ecologist at NASA, previously used sensor-laden great frigatebirds to assess whether the boundaries of a marine protected area around Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Ocean protected the animals within it. Brosnan suspected the frigatebirds’ flights were related to the PBL – if so, Gilmore’s project had also collected critical PBL samples.
“I instantly thought the birds could be traveling to the top of the PBL, turning around, and coming back down,” Brosnan said. “And they’re probably covering a pretty broad area, too.”
To check if the birds’ flight patterns matched PBL altitudes, the researchers compared PBL measurements from 2006-2019 analysis to frigatebirds’ flights. They found that the long-term average PBL heights in that area very closely matched the bird’s altitude data.
The trackers on the tail feathers of great frigatebirds took measurements of elevation as well as GPS coordinates, essentially mapping the PBL as they flew. The tagged frigatebirds had sampled temperature profiles in the PBL and had no trouble collecting data during cloudy weather or at night, unlike traditional sampling approaches.
“These novel approaches to using animal tracking data can help NASA measure the planetary boundary layer and improve climate predictions and weather and air quality forecasts,” Brosnan continued.
“After hearing from interagency scientists about how important global, satellite-based animal tracking data was for their research projects, NASA created the ‘Internet of Animals’ project. This allows scientists to integrate data from remote sensing measurements with data from sensors on animals, now including the great frigatebird PBL data. This work is a good example of how interagency and interdisciplinary collaborations can help tackle larger science questions. One of the things we’re trying to do is bridge between these two communities – animal tracking and atmospheric science – and see if we can enrich the work that we both do.”
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