Category Archives: Environmental

Tail feathers Changed after Severe Storms

Researchers from the University of Oklahoma and the Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville have found evidence that severe storms have caused a physical change in a population of birds.

The team studied Grasshopper Sparrows near El Reno, OK. The birds survived a massive storm in May 2013. It was a deluge that saw a 2-mile wide EF5 tornado and hailstones that were more than two inches wide. The birds they studied were born just before the storm. You can read the study here.

Jeremy Ross in the field during study.

Dr. Jeremy Ross in the field during study.

Dr. Jeremy Ross was the lead researcher. He reports they found a spike in the chemical signature of what’s called pallid bands in the tail feathers of the birds. Dr. Ross says the bands contained more of a certain type of nitrogen isotope. He says the stress of living through the storm caused muscle tissue to break down which changed the composition of the nitrogen in the blood. That change plays itself out as the feathers develop. “This may be the first example of severe thunderstorms being scientifically implicated in sublethal stress impacts on wildlife,” says Dr. Ross.

Pallid band on the tail feather of a young Grasshopper Sparrow

Pallid band on the tail feather of a young Grasshopper Sparrow. Photo courtesy: W. Alice Boyle

So why would this happen? What’s it mean? Dr. Ross says the tail is less important than the wing feathers in young birds. During high-stress events, like severe storms, food can be harder to find because the hailstones can kill either one or both parents of the fledgling or kill the insects on which they feed. When that happens the body moves blood from growing feathers that are not as important in order to protect other parts of the body that need more blood and energy.

Dr. Ross say it’s not unusual for Grasshopper Sparrows to have pallid bands but it’s normally about 2% of the population. After the El Reno storm they discovered about 44% of the population showed the pallid bands.

A detailed look at the Pallid Bands in the tail feathers of young Grasshopper Sparrows

A detailed look at the Pallid Bands in the tail feathers of young Grasshopper Sparrows. Photo courtesy: W. Alice Boyle

The study came about by accident, Dr. Ross says the team was doing other research in the area when they noticed the high rate of pallid bands in the Grasshopper Sparrows. (What a great example of how fluid science can be!!) Dr. Ross told me, “This study represents the opportune accident that scientists often don’t plan for and, therefore, don’t report. We have encouraged the scientific community to follow suit and report such findings because as a connected network we can be assured that in any given year severe weather will strike an existing field study. From such events we can gain insight into what the impacts of current severe weather patterns are now and, from this insight, we can start to predict how intensifying and expanding severe weather patterns will impact wildlife populations under a changing climate.”

Oklahoma is “Ground Truth” for Climate Change Research

Oklahoma is well known for its climate change deniers, but did you know that Oklahoma is also considered a rock star, so to speak, by those who study climate change?

A research paper published in February in Nature showed that carbon dioxide is indeed trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere. The study backs up what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been saying all along. The research was conducted by scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. They concluded that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 22 parts per million from 2000-2010.

The data came from two climate research facilities in the United States. One is in Barrow, Alaska and the other is right here in Oklahoma…Lamont, OK to be precise. The small town is located in Grant County, west of I-35 along Highway 60. The town’s mayor writes on Lamont’s website, “Lamont is a classic small town, where everyone knows your name, a neighbor is not just someone who lives next door, and the community is your family.” 

The climate research site in Lamont is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. The main facility covers 160 acres of land around Lamont. You can read all about the facility here and see a map of where weather research stations are located in Oklahoma.

One of the researchers for this new study is Dr. Daniel Feldman. Here’s what he told me about the role Oklahoma is playing in the study of climate change, “The site in Oklahoma that was used for this research is actually pretty famous in the atmospheric science community, because it is heavily instrumented and has been for over two decades now. The idea for this site is to make a whole lot of high quality measurements to improve scientific understanding of atmospheric science, including weather, how thunderstorms and tornadoes form, cloud formation, interactions between the land and the atmosphere, and many other research topics. The site’s data has been used by researchers to advance science many, many times, and often is referred to as a “ground truth” because of the quality of the data there, its accessibility, and its comprehensive nature.”

So there you have it, regardless what the Senator with the Snowball says, climate change is real and Oklahoma is playing a major role in documenting it.

“The Senator with the Snowball”

Senator Jim Inhofe’s embarrassing speech before congress with his snowball was a low point for Oklahoma politics. So in steps Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) with the perfect rebuttal. It had just the right amount of scientific references and just the right amount humor.

I love this quote, “So, you can believe every major American scientific society, or you can believe the Senator With The Snowball.”

Sen. Inhofe will forever be known as the Senator with the Snowball.

This is not OK- Sen. Jim Inhofe and his Magical Snowball

This is the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This is sad. But also funny because it’s so sad.

Our illustrious Senator Jim Inhofe tossing a snowball to disprove climate change. Your tax dollars pay his salary. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?

In case you don’t know why snowfall does not disprove climate change read this link.


Megadroughts are Megabad

Oklahoma could be ground zero to some one of the worst droughts in a millennium. A new report in the journal Science Advances says the Great Plains and Southwest portion of the U.S. are in line for megadroughts over the next 100 years. Those are droughts that last more than 20 years. Researchers say we could see droughts that last as long as 35 years or more. This part of the world hasn’t seen droughts like that since the 1100s.

You guessed it, the drier conditions are mostly a result of rising greenhouse gases, according to the report.

My grandfather was a wheat farmer in north central Oklahoma all of his life. I remember visiting his farm as a child. The TV was never on except to watch the weather report and then no one could move or say a word. That weather report was his lifeline. You could sense his anguish if he needed rain and it wasn’t coming. I can’t imagine what a megadrought will do to our Oklahoma farmers.

I wonder when our state and national leaders will take this seriously? If reports like this don’t change some minds, I’m not sure what will.



Forget the Doppler, Use a Warbler

Oklahoma is right in the heart of tornado alley, of course, and doppler radar salesmen probably have a field day in the Sooner state. Well, maybe our illustrious meteorologists should add a few golden-winged warblers to their storm predicting arsenal.

A recent study published in Current Biology shows that songbirds can “hear” a storm come from miles and miles away. The study reports that golden-winged warblers left the southern part of the United States last April just before a massive tornado outbreak. The birds went to Colombia (the country, not to South Carolina), then came back to eastern Tennessee only a few days later.

Researchers believe the songbirds heard the storm’s infrasound. That’s a very low pitched sound created as the storm begins to build. According to the Newsweek article, the line of thought that birds use infrasound isn’t new. It’s believed homing pigeons used it as well. But this is the first time scientists have hardcore data backing up the claim.

Could you imagine Bob the weatherman going to the TV station’s roof to check on his golden-winged warblers instead up pulling up that fancy-schmancy Doppler radar? Yeah, me either.

Cleanup at Tar Creek

The Tar Creek watershed is a mess. The land in northeast Oklahoma is home to one of the largest Superfund sites in the country. It was contaminated by lead and zinc mining that began in the early 1900’s and ran until 1967. Billions of dollars worth of ore was taken from the ground, but it came at a serious cost to the environment. Waste from the mines seeped into the watershed, contaminating the groundwater. That water eventually finds its way to the surface making it dangerous for anyone who comes in contact with it.

Tar-Creek Robert-Nairn

Dr. Robert Nairn from the University of Oklahoma has been working to clean up the water for the past decade. He and a team of engineers, students, and environmental scientists are working to build a passive water treatment facility in Commerce. They’ve been testing different methods to clean the water and are getting closer to finding a solution. They plan to begin designing and building the facility sometime in 2015.  Dr. Nairn and his team recently received a $1.6 million grant from the Department of Environmental Quality to continue his work.

I had the chance to catch up with Dr. Nairn recently as he checked on the progress of the clean up. I also learned why he’s dedicated his life to turning Tar Creek from a Superfund site to a super clean site.