Planet Earth

Meet the High-Flying Creatures of the Aerosphere

Land and water aren't the only places with thriving ecosystems. 

By Mary HoffMay 12, 2014 9:17 AM

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What’s up? A lot more than you might think. 

Floating and flying above us are not only the usual suspects — birds, bats, insects — but countless microscopic creatures as well. The disciplines of aerobiology and aeroecology explore how animals, plants and other organisms live in, move through and interact with the aerosphere — the part of Earth’s atmosphere that supports life. (It’s also known as the boundary layer, which typically stretches upward about 650 to 1,650 feet.)

Ever since Boston University biologist Thomas Kunz founded aeroecology in 2008, it has seen huge gains because of the growing ability to track air movement with radar and telemetry, and because of humans’ growing use of airspace. Instruments are now so precise that radar observations can spot a single bee at about 30 miles away, and scientists can combine thermal imaging cameras, acoustic monitoring devices and small portable radars with weather radar data to get a complete picture of a region’s ecology.

“We’re really interested in how animals are sensing and using and adapting to changes in atmospheric conditions,” says University of Oklahoma aeroecologist Jeffrey Kelly. There are direct applications of the results, too. Ecologists can reveal the frequency of bird and bat deaths in wind turbines, the traffic of birds around airports and the potential for distribution of disease and disease vectors.

[This article originally appeared in print as "Something in the Air."]

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