LANL and NMSU are collaborating to study the “disaster ecology” following the mass death of birds

ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Some researchers in New Mexico have a new project and they say that birds hold the clues and a certain event catches their attention.

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

Recent studies, including one by NASA, have found that climate change is disrupting this annual cycle, and these disruptions can affect entire ecosystems.

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

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

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

The seemingly biblical event alarmed researchers around the world. Disease was the first theory, but scientists quickly realized that something more powerful was to blame.

“That would be climate change,” Fair said.

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

“We had some extremely high temperatures in Colorado and New Mexico, and then a cold front came in, which was kind of an extreme cold event. At the same time, we had big, catastrophic wildfires in the area, so it was very, very smokey,” Fair said.

All of these stressors, Fair says, have pushed the normally resilient birds to the limit, and researchers think it may be happening again.

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

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

“It’s one where we’re trying to understand how these disasters occur, what leads to these disasters, and also how we might be able to mitigate them and reduce their impact in the future,” Wright said.

Wright says students will revisit the mass extinction events of the 2020s to better understand how climate change is affecting migratory birds, and that the 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 strains that depend on where they’ve been, where they’re going, and therefore they’re the ones that connect us globally.

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

A world of knowledge hiding in the sky.

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

The new partnership started last week. A USDA grant allows up to 24 students to attend over the next four years.