Scientists may have found the silver lining in that large cloud of radar information that weather forecasters discard because it is produced by birds, bats and insects.
While this information is just clutter to the weather folks, it's just the thing biologists need to study the activities of flying creatures — a science newly christened "Aeroecology."
"Radar provides us an unprecedented tool for observing bats and birds," Winifred F. Frick of the University of California, Santa Cruz, explained Friday at the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Typically bats, insects and birds have small bodies which make them difficult to observe, she said. Frick said the radars are helping researchers study foraging behavior and researchers also can now observe migratory patterns, seasonal changes in behavior and the effect of variations in climate.
"It was absolutely inspiring to be able to see the scale at which the bats are operating. We've never been able to see that before," Frick added.
Phillip B. Chilson of the University of Oklahoma noted there are many government radars scattered across the country and around the world to track weather and airplanes and these units can also provide biological data.
Frick, who focuses on bats, said, for example, the radar data has helped them determine that bats come out of their roosts earlier on hot days in dry years but later on hot days in wet years.
The nationwide system of radars operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can help researchers understand migratory and other patterns on a large scale, she added.
And the National Climatic Data Center has a 20-year archive of that radar data, she added, which has the potential to show patterns of bird, bat and insect population changes over time. That data is currently being prepared for analysis, Frick said.
The activity of animals in the air near ground is has not been well explored, noted Thomas H. Kunz of Boston University, who coined the term aeroecology. He said the radar analysis will assist various types of scientists in improving knowledge of that region.
"It's very interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary in the sense that it involves bird biologists and bat ecologists, entomologists, radar scientists and meteorologists," said Frick.
She recalled a breakfast with weather researchers who were talking about "QPE," or quantitative precipitation estimates using radar.
When she asked what that meant, they explained they could estimate the number of raindrops in a cloud.
"So I asked, can you estimate the number of bats in a bat cloud?"
It turned out, the answer was "yes."