LANL, NMSU partner up to study ‘disaster ecology’ after mass bird die-off

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Some researchers in New Mexico have a new project, and they say that birds hold the clues, and a specific event has their attention.

It’s no secret birds have a close relationship with the weather. Hundreds of millions of them fly south in the winter and back north in the summer – at least that’s how it’s supposed to go.

Recent studies, including one from NASA, found climate change is interfering with that annual cycle, and those disruptions can ripple through entire ecosystems.

Researchers in New Mexico believe one of the most extreme examples of this phenomenon is holding secrets that could help predict the next ecological disaster.

It’s September 2020, pandemic lockdowns are entering their sixth month, the burning of Zozobra goes on without crowds for the first time, and thousands of birds drop-dead over New Mexico. 

“It was literally within a few days, that we saw a mass mortality of birds,” said Jeanne Fair, a Los Alamos National Lab scientist. 

The seemingly biblical-level event alarmed researchers across the globe. Disease was the first theory, but scientists quickly realized something more powerful was to blame.

“That would be climate change,” said Fair. 

Fair is one of the Los Alamos National Lab researchers who studied the incident. She says the birds experienced not one, not two, but three different extreme weather events in just a few days.

“We had had some extreme high temperatures in Colorado and New Mexico, and then we had a cold front come in that that was sort of extreme cold event. At the same time, we had large catastrophic forest fires in the region, and so it was very, very smoky as well,” Fair said. 

Fair says all of those stressors pushed the typically resilient birds to their limit, and researchers believe it could happen again.

“Something new is happening, climate change is increasing the frequency and the severity of these weather related events,” said Tim Wright, a New Mexico State University professor. 

Wright is spearheading a new partnership between New Mexico State University and Los Alamos National Lab. One training students in a relatively new field of research – disaster ecology.

“It is one in which we try to understand how these disasters are occurring, what leads to these disasters, and also how we might be able to mitigate them and lessen their impact in the future,” said Wright. 

Wright says students will revisit 2020s mass die-off to better understand how climate change affects migratory birds, and that research could one day help predict future weather disasters.

“That’s why migratory birds are particularly important,” Fair said. “They’re a great indicator of, of stresses from whether where they’ve been to where they’re going, and so they’re the ones that are connecting us globally.

“That’s why we say they’re canaries in the coal mine, because they really are sensitive to a whole suite of human induced changes in the environment,” said Wright.  

A world of knowledge hiding in the skies above.

“If it’s true that these sorts of events are going to happen more regularly, you know, we really need the next generation of environmental scientists of ornithologist, and researchers, and environmental professionals to really come together and, and to be able to address this,” said Fair. 

The new partnership kicked off this past week. A USDA grant is allowing up to 24 students to participate over the next four years.