Mesmerizing Migration Map

Cornell - Migration Map

The mesmerizing migration map, from Cornell University. Each dot represents the typical migration movement and timing for an individual species.

I’m not nearly clever enough for such use of alliteration in a post title…this is straight from the source!  But it’s such a great name and title for the material, I had to use it.  Using eBird data that provides millions of bird sightings submitted by everyday citizens, Cornell University put together animated maps that depict bird migrations in the Western Hemisphere (click to see the animated maps).  118 species are represented, showing typical migration routes over the course of a year.

It’s fascinating to view.  The animation starts at the start of a year, and there’s not much movement at first, as birds are settled into their winter range.  A few oddballs start migrating quite early, but by March there’s widespread movement which crescendos in April and May before most birds are in their summer ranges.  Some species already start moving back south during the month of June, and by September there’s a mass south-bound flux of birds.

The long established monitoring programs of the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count are great, providing relatively consistent observations of birds for well established routes and locations over several decades. This animated map, however, helps to show the power of eBird.  As someone who has used eBird both as a birder for the recording of my sightings, and as a scientist for the use of the data in bird species distribution modeling, I’m well aware of some of the difficulties with the data.  Given that anyone can enter sightings, there’s no systematic sampling design, there’s definite bias in sightings towards both heavily populated areas and for more “charismatic” species, and there are issues with reliability of sightings with bird ID skills ranging from novice to expert.  But given that eBird data aren’t limited to a specific season or geography, they offer an opportunity that BBS and CBC cannot…the ability to track bird movement, and also track how those movements change in the face of climate change or other stress factors.

Very cool map…it’s very interesting to try and follow one dot over the course of the year!  Only thing I wish it had were some kind of label (or clickable dots) so you knew what species each dot represents.

Hurricane Alex, and what it all means for birds.

Photo of Western Meadowlark - Sturnella neglecta

I clearly remember the day I took this photo of a Western Meadowlark. It was in the winter of 2003, and it was damned cold at the time (10 below). It was a lone bird, huddling in a hay bale, and it was about the only Western Meadowlark I saw on that day. Just a dozen years later, during a day of birding the same location, I came across many hundreds of Western Meadowlarks.

It’s 17 below (F) this morning in the great white hell we call South Dakota..so of course global warming is on my mind!  We’ve got our own Hurricane Alex, in the form of a boy that can be a handful at times.  In the meantime, out in the Atlantic, a real Hurricane Alex formed this past week.  A hurricane?  Forming in January?  Since records were kept there have only been 4 hurricanes that have ever existed in the Atlantic in January, with only 2 that actually formed during that month.

It’s a year with a very strong El Nino, so some weather strangeness is to be expected, but Hurricane Alex certainly caught folks by surprise. There’s been plenty of other climate and weather abnormalities in the last several months.  On the East Coast, Christmas Eve brought temperatures up into the 70s, with Washington D.C. and New York City both hitting 71 for a high, while Norfolk, Virginia saw a downright balmy 82.  Overall, December was the warmest and wettest on record for the U.S.  The December strangeness wasn’t isolated to the U.S.  In Great Britain, records were shattered for precipitation for the month, while temperatures were nearly 7 degrees (F) above normal.  Daffodils were blooming Great Britain in December, a phenomenon that was also occurring across the U.S. East Coast.

Globally, 2015 provided a number of remarkable weather extremes.  Right before the new year, the temperature at the North Pole rose above freezing. Late December…North Pole…a place that hadn’t even seen the SUN for months…yet the temperature rose above freezing in an unprecedented event.  The year started with record breaking snows in the eastern U.S.  Record heat killed thousands in India and Pakistan.  Two tropical cyclones hit Yemen within one week..Yemen had never before been hit by a tropical cyclone of the magnitude of the first to hit. Seabirds in Alaska and elsewhere in the Pacific were dying in massive numbers due to hunger, most likely caused by El Nino and the climate weirdness.  Heat waves have been baking Australia recently after a year punctuated with both droughts and floods.

In any given year, there will always be weather extremes.  There will always be droughts, floods, severe storms, and heat waves.  However, weather and climate models are unequivocal in predicting a strong increase in weather extremes due to climate change.  Droughts will become longer and more severe.  Heavy precipitation events will increase, along with subsequent flooding.  Storm intensity will increase.  The models that predict these changes are now clearly being reinforced by actual empirical evidence.

Over the coarse of a human lifetime, simple observation can also reinforce the impacts of climate change, including from the aspect of being a birder.  There are already well known range expansions and contractions of species that are almost certainly tied to climate change in part, such as Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, and Red-bellied Woodpecker all shift in range to the north in recent decades.  Just from an observational standpoint, one trend I notice are more and more Western Meadowlarks staying in South Dakota to overwinter.  When I started birding over 15 years ago (just a heartbeat in terms of the climate change timeline), I would occasionally run across a single Western Meadowlark or perhaps a handful as I birded the grasslands in the central part of the state in winter.  It seems like every winter, that number rises.  On a recent birding trip to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and areas just to the south, I came across hundreds of Western Meadowlarks over the course of the day.

Climate change?  It’s tough to attribute one short-duration phenomenon to climate change.  As I said, up until this point, it had been a relatively mild winter in terms of temperature, so perhaps you’d expect more Western Meadowlarks to hang around.  But it hasn’t just been a one-year event, it’s been a longer term, visible trend that I’ve noticed just through casual observation.

As a scientist, I admit I do find it fascinating to live through this particular period in time.  It’s amazing to watch these kinds of changes, and realize the incredible impact human beings have on the planet.  Fascinating…amazing…and also damned terrifying and outright depressing at times as well, know that what you’re observing is completely unnatural.

 

Science MATTERS – A lesson from Joaquin

Graphic of potential paths for Hurricane Joaquin

September 30th, just a couple of days away from Hurricane Joaquin potentially impacting the U.S. coastline, and nearly all U.S.-based models had the hurricane directly striking the U.S. coast. The outlier? The (well-funded) European model that ended up correctly predicting the path far out to sea. A repeat of Hurricane Sandy, which U.S. models also struggled with, but the European model nailed.

It’s more than a bit depressing at times lately, being a U.S. government scientist.  Funding is a big part of that, as funding profiles for science in the U.S. government have definitely been on the downswing.  For my own project, I’ve had to cut quite a few very good people over the last few years, as the funding I receive to do land-use and land-cover modeling (future and past) has declined precipitously.  There are few things more maddening than working on a project, producing something the world has never seen, something that has tremendous value in helping science and society in general cope and plan for coming climate and land-use changes…and seeing your “reward” come in the form of massive budget cuts, forcing the release of great scientists (and friends).

While the budget declines have been disappointing, what’s even worse is the public attitude towards science in general.  Science and scientists used to be revered in this country.  They were representative of progress, of leadership, of the United States’ leading global role.  During the Cold War, scientific progress itself was as busy an arena for West vs. East competition as was geopolitical competition, with the space race captivating the world.

However, in the past decade or so, science has seemingly become the enemy for many.  As the conservative movement politicized what are inherently science issues, not political issues, the public’s opinion of science, and scientists themselves, has taken a hit.  Instead of admiration, there’s a broad sector of the public that now views scientists with skepticism and mistrust.  The politicization of climate change has certainly played a big role, as political talking heads push a pro-business, anti-environment message by attacking not only the science of climate change, but the integrity of the scientists themselves.  Suddenly scientists are being portrayed as liars and swindlers, pushing climate change research only to support some mysterious hidden liberal agenda (SO hidden that even as as a bleeding heart liberal I can’t see it), or to ensure the big research dollars keep flowing (I myself would LOVE to know where conservatives think all these “big liberal research dollars” are coming from….I could use them!!!).

In the meantime, science is suffering in the U.S.  Environmental protection?  Research for clean energy sources?  Spending on environmental monitoring and assessment?  All irrelevant, as they potentially impact short-term profit margins.   It’s not just “fringe” science that’s being impacted, it’s core research and scientific monitoring that’s crucial to keeping Americans safe.

If you followed Hurricane Joaquin last week, there was tremendous uncertainty in the path of the hurricane as it lingered in the Bahamas.  Scientists use “ensemble modeling” to better characterize uncertainty in difficult to predict events, with a wide variety of models used to assess the same phenomena.  Such an approach helps to form a “consensus” of multiple models.  For Hurricane Joaquin, ensemble modeling was used to help identify a variety of potential tracks.  In theory, the most likely path is something that the majority of models agree upon.

Last week, the models were all over the map.  Even by mid-week last week, the vast majority of U.S. based models were predicting Joaquin would track northward from the Bahamas, making a direct strike on the U.S. mainland, somewhere between the Carolinas and the New York area.  Mid week, there was one model, the primary European model, that was an outlier.  The European model predicted a Joaquin would jog to the northeast, missing the U.S. coast completely.  The European model, although the outlier in mid-week predictions, was the closest to the actual hurricane path.  U.S. models performed quite poorly in comparison.

For Hurricane Sandy, there was similar uncertainty.  For Sandy, the European model (correctly) predicted the hook into the New York area, while most U.S. models predicted Sandy would curve northeastward and miss the U.S. coastline.  Again…it was the European model that was correct, with U.S. models performing poorly.

There’s a great story on the New York times on how far behind NOAA and the U.S. Weather Service have fallen in terms of hurricane forecasting.  Raw computing power is an order of magnitude lower for U.S. models than for the systems being used in Europe.  Input data is lacking, as are other aspects of model parameterization.  In short, the U.S. simply has not invested as much in basic weather forecasting and research as has Europe.

As Sandy showed, and now as Joaquin has showed….the lack of adequate research funding for science in the United States has a VERY real impact on the everyday lives of Americans.  Clearly it’s not just weather research that’s an issue. Science funding profiles are declining for nearly all fields. Keeping Americans safe from weather events, natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes, research on treating or curing disease, protection of our air, water, and food resources…all are suffering from lack of investment.

It’s a very curious disconnect right now, with technology-loving Americans seemingly often at war with science in general.  As Joaquin and Sandy showed, and as countless other examples have shown…there’s a real price to be paid for an inadequate investment in science.

Playing “Jenga” with nature

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga...take one piece away you don't know what will happen.

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga…take one piece away you don’t know what will happen.

You never know what will happen when you remove one piece of the puzzle.  Can it survive for a little while longer, albeit in a weakened state?  Or will it all come crashing down when that one piece gets removed?

Yes, I could be talking about the game of “Jenga”, something many of us have played.  But in this case I’m talking about nature.  In the journal Science Advances, research was just published that discusses a link between hawk populations in the southwestern U.S. and breeding success of Black-chinned Hummingbirds.  One wouldn’t immediately think there was much of a link between the two species.  Hummingbirds are far too small and quick for most hawk species to deal with.  They likely couldn’t capture them, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be more than a mouthful.  So how are the species linked?

As the paper discusses, there are actually three bird species who interact to affect nesting success of the hummingbird.  In addition to the Black-chinned Hummingbird, the study looked at Cooper’s Hawks and Mexican Jays.  What they found was that nesting success was much higher for the hummingbirds when they nested very close to Cooper’s Hawk nests.  The Cooper’s Hawks don’t feed on the hummingbirds, but they ARE a threat to Mexican Jays, and Mexican Jays will readily eat hummingbird eggs and young if they get a chance.  In one case, after Cooper’s Hawks left one nesting location, the researchers immediately saw Mexican Jays move in and decimate all hummingbird nests in the area.

Jenga…ala Mother Nature.  That’s what so scary when human beings start to interfere in natural systems.  One of the most publicized impacts of the removal of one species from a system is the Yellowstone ecosystem, before and after the reintroduction of wolves.  It was expected that the reintroduction would impact ungulate populations in the area, but it soon became apparent just how far-reaching an impact wolves have on the ecosystem.  Without wolves, elk and deer browsed freely in lowlands, resulting in nearly all young aspen trees to be browsed to the ground.  Aspen habitat all but disappeared in the park, but with the reintroduction of wolves, that habitat is now being reborn.  With increased aspen came more beavers.  With more aspen habitat and beaver ponds came an influx of more songbirds and other species that use those habitat.  With more wolves, there were fewer coyotes, which meant more small mammals and an increase in numbers of red fox, eagles, and ravens.

All due to the removal of one species.

Be it hawks in the Southwest or wolves in Yellowstone, the removal of one key species can have cascading impacts on the entire ecosystem.  The same certainly can be true in the “reverse” case, where a new, exotic species is introduced into the system.  As a scientist, it’s fascinating to see the incredible impacts humans have on ecosystems, both through how they manage the landscape, and in how they manage the wildlife within that landscape. As just a human being…it also can be pretty depressing to see how we negatively impact so many ecosystems.

Weather radar tracking bird migrations

Ever since I started birding 15 years ago, I had wished I could somehow link my hobby of birding, with my job as a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. I’ve finally been able to do so in the past couple of years. My work right now focuses on the modeling of future land use and land cover, taking existing land cover maps produced by satellite imagery, and using a model to project what the landscape will look like in the coming decades.  I’ve been able to take those projected land cover data and projected climate data, and look at how future bird species’ distributions will likely be impacted in the future.

Fun work!  But since I started birding, it’s been interesting to see other research related to both my initial love (my bachelor’s degree was in meteorology) and in remote sensing technologies (satellite imagery, aerial photography, etc.) that dominate my current work. Over the years we’ve had a couple of visiting scientists who have presented work on the use of weather radar to track bird migrations.  Here’s a nice feature story on the basics:

Doppler Radar Shows Bird Migrations

A cool thing to see!  I guess I’m not quite sure of the practical applications in terms of bird conservation.  Perhaps long term records and comparisons of radar patterns over multiple years could identify trends in the timing or patterns of migration.  In the meantime, it’s a neat application of a technology devised for other purposes.

Science “Debates” – Not a “debate” when the other is uninformed

Sick Earth

I recently saw a study that showed 40% of people in the world have never even heard of “climate change”. What’s worse to me than the uninformed? People who have HEARD of climate change, but choose to ignore the science and instead focus on personal belief, religion, politics, or business interests.

As a scientist, there’s little that irks me more than “deniers”.  Given that I work on issues that are related to climate change, I particularly have little patience for climate change losers skeptics who choose to get their “science” from Fox News talking heads, politicians or business people with a monetary interest in denying climate change, or other such “reliable” sources. Similar losers skeptics are also obviously out there who seem to feel personally affronted on the WELL established field of evolution.  In both cases, these losers skeptics ignore all real empirical evidence, and go with either 1) manufactured and false evidence, or 2) personal or religious belief.

I’m sorry, but if you’re one of these losers skeptics, don’t bother trying to get into any kind of debate out here on my blog.  I’m a scientist.  I deal with empirical evidence.  I deal with reality.  It’s foolish to even try to debate someone who is completely uniformed, or even worse, is purposely pushing misinformation as part of a political, religious, or personal agenda.

So, “Doug” and others…If you have something REAL to contribute on a topic, I welcome your input on my blog.  FYI, pointing to targeted “skeptic” websites doesn’t count as “real” information.  What’s the point of continuing any debate?  I can point to empirical evidence and the vast collection of peer-reviewed scientific literature.  What’s the point of arguing with someone who provides links to fantasy-land “skeptic” websites with no scientific backing?  It’s akin to debating the Big Bang with my two cocker spaniels.

In short, science debates are more than welcome out here. If you’re not going to even attempt to stay grounded in the real world, take your trolling to another blog.  You will be blocked here, saving all of us valuable time.

A nerdy scientist’s assessment of risk – Tornadoes vs. Earthquakes

Tornado Risk map - Dakotas

Tornado risk map from the National Weather Service for July 17th, 2015. Sioux Falls was squarely within the 2% zone, meaning there was a 2% chance of a tornado being seen somewhere within 25 miles of your location. Somehow…we all survived.

While at a conference for work in Portland last week, my colleague and I had a nice supper with two USGS colleagues who work in Menlo Park, California and Seattle, Washington, respectively.  We had relayed the news that the night before, there was storm damage in the area, with straight line winds and tornadoes both causing damage.  The West Coast colleagues…oh…let’s just call them “Ben” and “Tamara”…were flabbergasted that we’d want to live in an area so prone to devastating storms.

Tonight, the National Weather Service put out the map I’m showing here, noting that parts of South Dakota had either a 5% or 2% chance of a tornado hitting somewhere within 25 miles of your location. Let’s do the math!  What are the odds of a tornado hitting YOUR exact location on a night like this, when tornadoes were indeed spotted?

An area with a radius of 25 miles is over 54 billion square feet of territory. What are the odds of a tornado hitting your bit of territory, with a 2% chance of one being seen somewhere in this area? The average tornado path is 4 miles, or 21,120 feet. Average width is 500 feet. The average damage path is 10.5 million square feet. Even if you’re in the highest probability area, 5% chance of one being seen relatively near, the chances of one hitting YOUR chunk of territory…0.0010%. For the 2% chance of a tornado near you, the odds are 0.0004% it will strike your exact location.

Without Warning - Oregon Cascadia earthquake Comic

An actual comic-like booklet put out by the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. Yes, West Coasters…you’re in imminent danger of being swallowed whole by a massive earthquake. Tornadoes in the Plains? They’re nothing in comparison.

Just a guess…but we probably have chances similar to this only like 4-5 times a year. If you just use the same strike probability assumptions, you thus only have, likely at absolute most, a 0.0050% chance of a tornado hitting your location in a given year.

That’s an average of about one hit on your exact location every 20,000 years. Most tornadoes are weak F0 or F1, so even a hit might not be that bad.

Now, let’s reconsider the situation for my colleagues living in California and Seattle.  This week the New Yorker ran a story about the upcoming massive Cascadia subduction zone earthquake that could hit, The story said on average, something similar to the massive 1700 earthquake thought to have hit the area occurs about once every 250 years.

Put it all together, and Seattle is 80X as likely to get walloped with a 9.0 earthquake as Sioux Falls is to get a direct hit from a tornado, and even a direct tornado hit in Sioux Falls is likely to be far, far, less damaging than any earthquake.

You are welcome, West Coast storm-haters.  I hope I have reassured you that is once again safe to visit us in stormy Sioux Falls.  🙂

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