Researchers look to weather radar to help predict bird flu

Storm-Over-Field_BlogThe same weather radar technology used to predict rain is now giving researchers the ability to track wild birds that could carry the avian influenza virus. Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, infects and kills chickens, turkeys and other types of birds, and can take a significant economic toll on the poultry industry.

In 2014-15, data shows that the U.S. alone experienced its worst bird flu outbreak in history, resulting in more than 48 million birds dying in 15 states.

“We use the existing network of weather radar stations in the U.S. in the same way that radar is used to track rain, except that we process the data to allow us to interpret the radar signal bouncing off birds instead of raindrops,” Maurice Pitesky, a poultry specialist said in a recent article. “The data can be interpreted to track birds.”

Known as NEXRAD, or next-generation radar, the system is a network of 160 high-resolution S-band Doppler weather radars operated by the National Weather Service. The technology works best for tracking birds in the winter during feeding. When waterfowl leave their roosting locations in concert to feed, their bodies produce reflectivity of the radar beam.

“By tracking mass bird movements remotely in real time, we hope to gain novel strategic insights with respect to surveillance and prevention of avian influenza transmission to domestic poultry,” Todd Kelman, a veterinarian and engineer who co-leads the project, said in the article. “We are exploring how the information might be used to prevent an outbreak.”

In this project, he added that data is collected 24 hours a day every 5-10 minutes.

In California, waterfowl migrate by the millions from September through March via the Pacific Flyway, where they winter in wetlands, rice and corn fields. The Central Valley alone is home to three million waterfowl at the height of migration.

“Using NEXRAD and various other approaches, we hope to be able to produce monthly or quarterly maps that will alert poultry producers as to the locations of waterfowl in the Central Valley of California,” Pitesky explained.

“Waterfowl populations can have different habitat based on the amount of precipitation in a given year,” he added. “Therefore, we need to use these types of monitoring tools to understand where waterfowl are located. Landsat, or satellite-based land imagery, and NEXRAD are two remote tools that may be very useful, as opposed to flyovers and banding, which are more expensive and not practical for large geographical areas.”

Another component of the project is that the researchers can compare the data they are collecting to the data they collected during a previous effort that looked at waterfowl distributions from 1995 to 2007 that were closely tied to the availability of water.

“Given the recent droughts in California, there are concerns about there being enough habitat for waterfowl. An important concern is that when the birds are concentrated in high densities, that’s a scenario for all sorts of other avian diseases, including botulism to occur,” said Jeff Buler, another researcher involved on the project. “If there is an outbreak of avian influenza and they’re very concentrated, it can quickly spread.”

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