ALBUQUERQUE – Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers are studying a 2020 incident in which thousands of migratory birds dropped dead over New Mexico, possibly due to climate change.
Hundreds of millions of birds fly south in the winter and north in the summer, but recent studies by NASA and others show climate change may be interfering with that annual cycle and those disruptions can ripple through entire ecosystems.
Jeanne Fair, a Los Alamos National Lab scientist and one of the researchers studying the September 2020 incident, said the birds experienced three different extreme weather events.
“It was literally within a few days that we saw a mass mortality of birds,” Fair told Albuquerque TV station KOB. “We had had some extreme high temperatures in Colorado and New Mexico, and then we had a cold front come in that was sort of extreme cold event. At the same time, we had large catastrophic forest fires in the region, and so it was very, very smoky as well.”
Fair said all of those stressors pushed the typically resilient birds to their limit and researchers believe it could happen again.
“Something new is happening. Climate change is increasing the frequency and the severity of these weather-related events,” said Tim Wright, a New Mexico State University professor.
Wright is spearheading a new partnership between New Mexico State University and Los Alamos National Lab with students trained in a relatively new field of research – disaster ecology.
“It is one in which we try to understand how these disasters are occurring, what leads to these disasters, and also how we might be able to mitigate them and lessen their impact in the future,” Wright told KOB.
Students will revisit the 2020 mass bird die-off to better understand how climate change affects migratory birds and that research could one day help predict future weather disasters, according to Wright.
“That’s why migratory birds are particularly important,” Fair said. “They’re a great indicator of, of stresses from whether where they’ve been to where they’re going, and so they’re the ones that are connecting us globally.”