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Great frigatebirds soar to help Bay Area scientists collect climate data

Great sea birds provide climate scientists with forecasting data
Great sea birds provide climate scientists with forecasting data 02:45

The great frigatebird is, well, pretty great. 

"They have these big wing spans and a relatively light body so they can soar up into the atmosphere and spend months and days aloft. It's a really beautiful bird," enthused Dr. Ian Brosnan, a scientist with NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.  

Now this beautiful bird is soaring to new heights.  

With the help of a special device known as a "biologger," these winged creatures are helping scientists better understand climate change.  

"So this actually a story of serendipity," noted Brosnan. 

Brosnan told CBS NEWS Bay Area these birds are found throughout the tropical Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean in parts of the Atlantic. They often fly over far-flung regions over the oceans and are found in a marine protected area around Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. 

In a different study, the birds were already getting tagged to monitor their movements around the Palmyra atoll by researchers associated with the Nature Conservancy. One of those scientists was hired by NASA Ames and a light bulb went off above Brosnan's head. 

"We thought to ourselves, 'Well, perhaps these birds are in remote parts of the world. Maybe they could actually be telling us something about the atmosphere around them that NASA could bring back in, and pair it,'" said the scientist. That idea results in a new research paper.  

Brosnan presented his findings at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union held this week at Moscone Center. 

"This is one of the largest gatherings of physical scientists with geoscientists in the us. And around the world.  I think there are 20,000 people here this week," exclaimed the scientist. 

Brosnan studies what's called the Planetary Boundary Layer or PBL for short. CBS NEWS Bay Area asked him where this layer actually exists. 

"We are in it. It envelops the entire earth and just goes up depending on how much its heating and what the topography is and the shape of the earth it effects the wind and the heating it will just rise up above us. But we're in it all the time," explained the researcher. 

Simply put, the PBL is the layer where we experience weather, air quality, and climate impacts. It rises as the planet temperatures warm up during the day and falls at night when temperatures cool.  

"So if you're really interested in air quality forecasts, weather forecasts or our changing climate understanding the dynamics of that boundary layer is really critical. And interesting right as we think about climate change, and global warming we're unsure in some ways how that boundary layer will change," noted Brosnan. 

Scientists typically study this layer using ground-based measurements or satellites. But it's expensive and hard to study remote areas over the oceans.  

That is until now, with the help of the great frigatebird. With a mild adhesive, scientists attached a biologger to the tails of several frigate birds.  

"The key principle is that the tag is safe for the animal," said Brosnan. 

These birds glide for long distances, using the PBL as it rises and falls. 

In this study, the tagged birds sampled the temperatures and had no trouble collecting data during cloudy weather or at night. 

"The fact that these birds ride these thermals up and the stop at the top of the boundary layer, was actually really the novel interesting piece," explained the scientist. 

The next step: to repeat the study using more of the birds.  

The hope is as these birds take flight, the data they gather will help humans develop better strategies to cope with the changing climate 

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