Severe space weather is messing up bird migrations, new study suggests

Solar flares affect birds' navigational skills during extended migrations, according to new research.

Birds and other creatures utilize Earth's magnetic field to navigate at night, according to studies. Solar activities alter the magnetic field and induce auroras, making navigation harder for birds.

The new study examined 23 years of bird migration over the U.S. Great Plains using photos from 37 NEXRAD Doppler weather radar sites and ground-based magnetometers. A large bird migration corridor runs from North Dakota to Texas, 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers).

“The biggest challenge was trying to distill such a large dataset — years and years of ground magnetic field observations — into a geomagnetic disturbance index for each radar site,” said University of Michigan space scientist Daniel Welling.

"There was a lot of heavy lifting in terms of assessing data quality and validating our final data product to ensure that it was appropriate for this study."

The effort paid off. The researchers found that severe space weather events reduce migrating birds in this region by 9–17%. Bird vagrancy—losing birds during migration—also rose.

"Our findings highlight how animal decisions are dependent on environmental conditions — including those we cannot perceive, such as geomagnetic disturbances

and that these behaviors influence population-level animal movement," said lead author Eric Gulson-Castillo, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Strangely, extreme space weather can disrupt human navigation. Solar eruptions interrupt GPS and other satellite communications. As the sun peaks in its 11-year solar activity cycle in 2025, significant space weather phenomena are forecast. As with Earth weather, space weather predictions may change quickly.

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