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Long-range seabirds could improve weather forecasting

The wandering albatross has been known to fly more than 16,000 kilometers—that’s New York City to Sydney, Australia—in a single trip without landing. As such, the seabird, along with the streaked shearwater and the Laysan albatross, are ideal candidates for a research effort to map wind speeds over the ocean. Scientists trekked to nesting sites in Hawaii, Japan, and India, taped tiny GPS trackers on 19 different birds, let them loose, and eventually logged more than 500 hours of total flight time. By comparing the birds’ flight speeds over ground and water, the researchers concluded that they could accurately calculate wind speeds wherever the seabirds flew—a conclusion they corroborated with existing data collected by buoys and GPS trackers, as they report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using an assemblage of seabirds in this way would create a more complete picture of oceanic wind speed—how fast or slow wind whips across the waves. Buoys and weather stations have measured oceanic wind speeds in some areas, but it would take mountains of money and manpower to efficiently cover as much distance as a seabird. And because birds are already flying their routes, there’s no need for setting up and maintaining expensive wind-measuring tools. Seeing how wind speeds change gives insight into how Earth’s atmosphere interacts with its oceans, ultimately improving the accuracy of weather forecasts. So the next time you lug your umbrella and the rain forecast was correct, perhaps you’ll have a wandering albatross to thank.