Realizing the biological potential of weather radar

Science Center Objects

The modern use of field deployed remote sensors generates large amounts of environmental data on natural systems, and this benefits natural sciences. Today’s automated sensors are fast, run nearly continuously, eliminate the need for “people power”, are cost effective to operate and maintain, and monitor the environment in ways humans cannot. The US network of more than 200 weather radars, the largest terrestrial sensor network in the world, is a case in point. Although designed for meteorological applications, these radars readily detect the movements of hundreds of species of birds, bats, and insects. Recent research suggests these radars show enormous potential to inform on a wide range of biological applications across many fields including wildlife ecology, conservation, and management; weather-related modeling and forecasting; energy development; human safety; and public education. from wildlife management to improved flight safety. Researchers see a need to develop data processing methods that enable biologists, meteorologists, and others to both mine biological information from existing weather radars and distinguish among different types of flying animals.

A weather radar in Indiana.
A weather radar station in Indiana.Public domain

Many stakeholders stand to gain considerably by enabling the biological capabilities of the US network of weather radars (and other radar systems). Research demonstrates the ability of these radars to capture a variety of animal movements and other behaviors (Figure 1). Specific disciplines that can benefit from the information gained through remote sensing tools are described below:

  • Agriculture: Weather radars can estimate abundance and track the migratory movements of agricultural pest insects as well as forecast the economic impact of their control by natural predators (bats).
  • Earth science: The weather radar data archive goes back nearly 20 years, a sufficiently long time frame to consider exploring climate change and its influence on the timing of biological activity of many species at continental scales.
  • Ecology and Conservation: A wide range of potential applications in the ecological sciences from understanding reported declines in North American songbirds to tracking population changes in cave-dwelling bats to examining how flying animals confront barriers to migration.
  • Education: Fifty million Americans claim to be bird watchers and feed birds, a ~4 billion dollar industry. These same people have also grown familiar with radar imagery showing weather. These facts suggest a large constituency would take an active interest in seeing colorful, animated imagery of bird movements across the US (Think the Weather Channel or as part of your local weather forecast.)
  • Energy development: The wind energy industry is experiencing enormous growth. This growth will continue and wind developers are required to perform environmental assessments for new facilities, and radar is commonly used to assess potential impacts to flying animals. Distinguishing birds and bats from insects is a central, but often unaddressed, concern in these studies. When insects are inadvertently identified as birds or bats, the costs of wind energy development increases.
  • Flight safety: Across aviation (civilian and military), collisions with flying animals result in human casualties and account for hundreds of millions in losses annually, and there is room to further develop and refine use of radar to improve air safety.
  • Health: By monitoring the continental scale movements of birds and bats, weather radars could play a role in tracking infectious disease.
  • Meteorology: Biological organisms cause radar echoes that disrupt meteorological applications of radar. For this reasons there is widespread interest in building better algorithms to detect and remove biological echoes from meteorological data.
  • Wildlife management: Weather radars can monitor movement and habitat use by waterfowl and other species and document changes in habitat use in response to habitat restoration or other management actions. Where applicable, such use of radars in lieu of field-intensive monitoring may save costs and reduce risk to humans associated with manned aerial wildlife surveys.

The biological potential of this radar network is far from realized. Research progress has been made along many of the areas mentioned above, but advancing these capabilities depends on first developing a software infrastructure that allows the enormous quantities of data from the US weather radar network to be automatically mined for biological information. This infrastructure does not exist and severely limits the ability to pursue biological applications of weather radar. There is a need to develop this infrastructure so that biological products, alongside their meteorological counterparts, become fully integrated into the standard output of this radar network.  


Weather radar reflecting songbirds over central and eastern North America.
Weather radar reflecting songbirds over central and eastern North America.


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