Cloud-gazing is, perhaps, a lost pastime. Before the Internet grabbed their attentions and took up most of their time, children would lie back on a summer day and try to find pictures in the clouds. Even for adults, “watching the clouds go by” used to be a way of saying you were relaxing and doing nothing in particular. Today, however, no one seems to have the time to contemplate the wisps in the sky.
A group of scientists, however, may soon bring cloud-gazing back in vogue—especially for conservationists and environmentalists. They’ve recently shown that observing clouds is an extremely effective way to locate the whereabouts of threatened and endangered species.
The cloud calculator
According to a study published in the online scientific journal PLOS Biology on March 31, 2016, scientists from the University at Buffalo and Yale University state that satellite data about global cloud cover can be a useful tool for identifying the size and location of threatened animal and plant habitats, and thus can help predict those species’ distributions.
The results of the study showed that variations in cloud cover sharply delineate the boundaries of ecological biomes, including tropical cloud forests that harbor many species not found anywhere else in the world. That’s because clouds influence natural processes, such as the amount of sunlight and rain, leaf wetness and surface temperatures. Cloud cover dictates, then, where animals and plants are able to live and grow.
Utilizing 15 years of data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites—which orbit and study the Earth—the researchers built a database containing two images per day of the cloud cover for nearly every square kilometer on the planet from 2000 to 2014.
From this data, the scientists then mapped the size and location of habitats for two species: the montane woodcreeper (a South American bird) and king protea (a South African shrub) in far greater detail than ever before. Until now, conservation managers could only estimate the extent of the montane woodcreeper’s habitat by examining precipitation data. But such an analysis fails to be accurate because in places such as the Andes Mountains where the woodcreeper lives, weather station networks are spaced far apart. Fine-resolution (one-kilometer) cloud cover examinations, however, proved to be far more precise.
That finding is particularly exciting because it shows that the technique of examining the extent of cloud cover could be used to locate the habitats of threatened plants and animals.
The cumulus curious
Using cloud cover to determine where threatened and endangered species thrive will especially benefit less developed countries, where conservation managers lack on-the-ground information. Often, such places also tend to be areas of high biodiversity and increasing human encroachment.
While cloud-gazing might not catch on again with the majority of us anytime soon, it’s good to know that there are nature advocates and scientists out there who still find watching the clouds worthwhile—and for a good reason.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,