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Science

'Sooty Birds' Reveal Hidden US Air Pollution (bbc.com) 80

Soot trapped in the feathers of songbirds over the past 100 years is causing scientists to revise their records of air pollution. From a report: US researchers measured the black carbon found on 1,300 larks, woodpeckers and sparrows over the past century. They've produced the most complete picture to date of historic air quality over industrial parts of the US. The study also boosts our understanding of historic climate change. [...] This new study takes an unusual approach to working out the scale of soot coming from this part of the US over the last 100 years. The scientists trawled through natural history collections in museums in the region and measured evidence of black carbon, trapped in the feathers and wings of songbirds as they flew through the smoky air. The researchers were able to accurately estimate the amount of soot on each bird by photographing them and measuring the amount of light reflected off them. "We went into natural history collections and saw that birds from 100 years ago that were soiled, they were covered in soot," co-author Shane DuBay, from the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, told BBC News. "We saw that birds from the present were cleaner and we knew that at some point through time the birds cleaned up -- when we did our first pass of analysis using reflectance we were like wow, we have some incredible precision." Their analysis of over 1,000 birds shows that black carbon levels peaked in the first decade of the 1900s and that the air at the turn of the century was worse than previously thought.

'Sooty Birds' Reveal Hidden US Air Pollution

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  • Ehhh... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Billy the Mountain ( 225541 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2017 @03:39PM (#55344887) Journal
    Was this a study that they planned to do, or was this something they did on a lark?
    • Was it valid, or for the birds?
      • I wonder if they corrected for where the birds were collected. Population density was far lower then, and perhaps the soot was heavier, but also more local.

        Intuitively speaking, I have trouble with the idea that the air all over the USA a century ago was more polluted than what I experienced in and around the 1970's, when the very rain was killing vegetation, the Delaware and other rivers ran with suds and rainbow slicks, and large areas of New Jersey were swamps of outright pollution.

        The air was worse back

        • Re:So, back on topic (Score:4, Informative)

          by slack_justyb ( 862874 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2017 @05:01PM (#55345385)

          The air was worse back then?

          It was worse back then, but it depends on how you define worse. The air had way more soot back then because humanity was very inefficient at burning fuels back then. When we got better at burning it, we released a lot more sulphur which in turned cause more acid rain. We've gotten better at the sulphur part, which in turn means our more pressing issue now is the CO2 content.

          So quick recap. Soot is worse because it is a massive irritant. Sulphur is worse because it turns rain into acid. CO2 is worse because it's warming the planet. We're finding all kinds of fun new things out about burning fossil fuels.

        • by Shotgun ( 30919 )

          Intuitively speaking, I have trouble with the idea that the air all over the USA a century ago was more polluted than what I experienced in and around the 1970's

          A reporter takes a picture of main street on New Year's Eve, 1901. What you see is a row of houses with smoking chimneys, and this was AFTER Benjamin Franklin's wood stove reduced the amount of fuel needed by 90%(?, or some ridiculously high number like that).

          Fast forward 50 years. Most of those fireplaces are replaced by oil (kerosene) burners. Still dirty, but not even comparable to the fireplaces. No one has to hire a chimney sweep to clean the exhaust tube of an oil heater.

          Another 50 years, and most

      • I'm a bit concerned that they may not have enough cardinal points in the survey to make it accurate.
      • Was it valid, or for the birds?

        Why the Angry Birds of course..

    • Was this a study that they planned to do, or was this something they did on a lark?

      It was planned to be just a big goose egg but it turned into something to crow about and not just fowl data.

      But that's what happens when research isn't just a flight of fancy, imagination takes wing bringing understanding to new heights.

      (Ducking for cover.... )

    • It may have been on the fly, but at least they tweeted about it...
      https://twitter.com/MSBbirds [twitter.com]
  • by Anonymous Coward

    How was the effect of smoking being allowed and banned at the museum accounted for?
    How was oil or candle lamps being used at the museum accounted for?

  • Gee, they took stuffed birds that were collecting dust in dark closets for 100 years. And they reflected less light. Is it a surprise? How do they correlate it to soot?
  • by trevc ( 1471197 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2017 @04:38PM (#55345245)
    Neither was a bird.
  • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2017 @05:37PM (#55345579)

    "Sooty Birds" is a failed version of "Angry Birds" targeted at smokers. It's now being re-branded for millennials as "Vaping Birds".

  • we will have the return of soot. Excellent!

  • I'll bet that they come back far worse than what is expected.

Lo! Men have become the tool of their tools. -- Henry David Thoreau

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