It seems every year, we’re seeing an outbreak of some new or previously known disease that triggers bouts of hysteria perpetuated by the media headlines. I’m sure we all remember the scares bestowed upon us by the avian influenza outbreaks that occurred over the years, with the most recent happening back in 2014 and 2015, during which over 48 million birds perished. While this ailment is, for the most part, preventable and treatable, large swaths of the human population remain vulnerable to contraction, thus justifying the need to continue preventative measures against the disease.
Last year, researchers took a unique innovative approach in combating avian influenza by tracking bird flocks using Doppler radar. While this technology is normally used to predict and monitor rain or storms, Doppler radar technology is being utilized by researchers to track migratory waterfowl in real-time, with hopes of preventing and containing potential influenza outbreaks. While this practice was first demonstrated roughly one year ago, it coincides with the migratory schedule of waterfowl, as they travel to warmer climates during the winter months (so right about now).
Researchers at the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources are trying to mitigate risks of another outbreak. Their goal is to monitor the patterns of these birds, notify USDA, and producers if waterfowl are in their area that could carry the pathogen. Not only can Doppler radar technology monitor migratory waterfowl, but also determine densities of bird flocks, namely the amount of birds within a cubic kilometer of airspace.
The technology can also track the direction and speed of a flock, using a radar beam to detect bird movements in the air like it would with rainfall. Reflection of an intense radar signal can indicate the presence of up to 1000 birds per cubic kilometer, whereas a weak signal can detect around 60 or 70 birds per cubic kilometer of airspace. Hopes are high that the data accumulated from this radar technology can be further developed and released on a monthly or even weekly basis online.
The video below breaks down how this technology operated, and demonstrates what researchers look out for on their screens to determine the size, direction, and other important details on migrating waterfowl flocks.