A team of researchers from Lund University, the University of Copenhagen and the Nature Research Centre in Lithuania has found that some great reed warblers climb as high as 6,000 meters when they fly over the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. In their paper published in the journal Science, the group describes monitoring migrating great reed warblers by affixing tiny data loggers to their backs.
Prior research has shown that there are thousands of species of birds that migrate across various parts of the planet to suit their needs. Among those are many songbirds, one of which is the great reed warbler. The bird is very well known in parts of Northern Europe, where it lives in the summer. Great reed warblers have been the subject of multiple research efforts and local birdwatchers await their arrival each spring. But as the temperatures drop in the fall, the birds take flight, migrating to sites approximately 7,000 kilometers away in sub-Saharan Africa. In this new effort, the researchers sought to learn more about two parts of their migratory journey that have not been studied—what happens when they cross the Mediterranean Sea and when and the Sahara Desert?
Prior research had shown that like many other migrators, the birds tend to fly at night and rest during the day. Noting that there would be few places to rest over a vast sea or desert, the researchers wondered how they made it across. To find out, they captured and attached very small sensors to the backs of 63 birds and then set them loose.
In studying their data (from just 14 sensors that had usable data) the researchers found that instead of landing and resting when the sun rose in the sky, the birds not only kept flying, but they climbed higher into the sky. In some instances, the birds were recorded flying as high as 6,000 meters.
The researchers note that the air is much thinner at these altitudes, and much cooler—below freezing. They suggest the birds might be climbing so high because it is the only way they can keep cool during their flight as their muscles generate constant heat. There is also the possibility that they are taking advantage of atmospheric conditions. Researchers on a prior study found that frigatebirds can stay aloft for months due to prevailing winds that allow them to fly with almost no effort.
Sissel Sjöberg et al. Extreme altitudes during diurnal flights in a nocturnal songbird migrant, Science (2021). DOI: 10.1126/science.abe7291
With the Earth on track to finish out another year among the warmest on record and the impact of climate change mounting around the globe, advocates around the Great Lakes are looking ahead to what a new administration could mean for the Midwest, the region containing one of the world’s largest freshwater sources.
Much is at stake when it comes to the Great Lakes region. Warming temperatures and more precipitation can mean more flooding. Shoreline protections are up against rising lake levels and million-dollar damage storms. Invasive species threaten to upend ecosystems and toxic algae blooms are intensifying. Human health is at risk if water quality takes a hit.
And yet, Great Lakes advocates say there are reasons for hope.
“This is not shades of gray,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “After four years of the Trump administration seeking to roll back more than 100 environmental and public health safeguards, the Biden-Harris administration is a breath of fresh air for those of us who care about protecting the environment.”
One of the first signs of change is likely to come with the rejoining of the Paris climate accord, which aims to curb warming below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times, and ideally under 1.5 degrees Celsius—the threshold believed to stave off catastrophe.
Almost all countries have signed on to the agreement. The U.S. formally left the agreement this year after years of President Donald Trump criticizing the pact. President-elect Joe Biden pledged this month to rejoin on day one of his presidency.
Biden also pledged to convene world leaders for a climate summit in his first 100 days. The Biden campaign has said it will set a target of net zero emissions by 2050.
“We should never have left it in the first place,” said Don Wuebbles, a University of Illinois professor of atmospheric sciences who served as a White House science adviser, about the accord.
“I would never claim that it is a perfect agreement, but the reason I would say that is not what the existing administration says. I would say it’s because it doesn’t go far enough,” Wuebbles said. “The costs to our society are much greater from not doing something than it would be to tackle this and say, OK, as a society we have to deal with the fact that these energy and transportation-related emissions, yes, they might have some negative impacts on our economy in the short run. But in the long run, we can build a stronger economy because we’ve done something about it.”
As Biden’s climate team comes together, some also expect a shift among federal agencies toward reemphasizing climate change.
That includes getting “back to basics” with staffing, budget and enforcement capacity at the Environmental Protection Agency, said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
Brammeier said he also hopes to see the administration prioritize investment in water infrastructure.
“Both Chicagoans and the communities around Chicago have some of the most outmoded, outdated, crumbling water infrastructure in the country,” Brammeier said. “So that needs to be fixed, it needs to be upgraded, it needs to be replaced. And cities, suburbs have varying abilities to do that on their own. Frankly, most of them don’t have the ability to do everything that’s needed on their own.”
Jim Angel, the state’s former climatologist, said the region could certainly benefit from more resources.
“For example, more investment in green infrastructure so we can handle these rainfall events that cause so much flooding and cause so much damage,” Angel said. “We can have structures that can reduce that flooding, as well as reduce the impacts on water quality.”
Advocates have their eye on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program from federal agencies that funds coastal restoration and cleanup projects. The Trump administration sought to cut funding by 90% and then the president later falsely claimed he was restoring funding for the program, which has generally had strong bipartisan support and was safeguarded by Congress.
Congress authorized the program for another five years, calling for annual funding to increase from $300 million to $475 million by 2026.
“When it comes to protecting the Great Lakes and protecting safe, clean drinking water, here in the Midwest, that’s not a partisan issue,” Learner said.
Now, the incoming administration can reaffirm its commitment to the initiative, Brammeier said. “I think this administration has a real opportunity to put its stamp on that through the lenses of environmental justice and climate change and make sure that it’s addressing the most urgent priorities for the Great Lakes across the region.”
Kristin Murphy, government affairs associate at Audubon Great Lakes, said the initiative is essential to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes.
“And that increased funding will be super crucial,” Murphy said. “It just means we can do more, including protecting habitat, protecting clean drinking water, controlling invasive species, among so many other things.”
Audubon Great Lakes is also looking to the Biden administration to help protect wildlife, especially with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, threatened during the Trump administration.
“We’ve seen a huge loss of birds, not only in our region but across the United States,” Murphy said. “We know that they’re an indicator species for what’s happening to the environment, so if they’re in trouble, so are we.”
Funding for the Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study, headed by the U.S. Army Corps, is a wish list item. The study would search for vulnerable areas along Great Lakes’ coasts.
“And that’s of course top of mind for some communities right now because of the extreme water levels in the Great Lakes,” Brammeier said.
A report reevaluating Chicago’s shoreline could also come into play.
One long-term project likely to be watched closely is the cleanup of contaminated Superfund sites, some of which are susceptible to flooding.
“That’s not something that can be done by the new administration on day one but we believe that it’s a matter of basic civil rights, that people should not have to live in communities with toxic threats,” Learner said. “And one challenge for the incoming administration will be to find ways to accelerate the cleanups of the old toxic sites that are located around the industrial Midwest.”
Regardless of what happens next with the national approach to climate change, there are already tangible effects, said Trent Ford, the state’s climatologist.
“It’s impactful environmentally, it’s impactful economically, it’s impactful through our health,” Ford said. “As far as being impactful to the Great Lakes region, climate change is impactful right now.”
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