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Scientist Decode The Physics Of Wave Surfing Pelicans

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UC San Diego researchers have spelled out the math that explains how pelicans can fly for miles along the coast while barely flapping their wings. KPBS environment Reporter Erik Anderson says the information has implications for understanding the warming climate.

Speaker 1: 00:00 UC San Diego researchers have spelled out the math. That explains how pelicans can fly from miles along the coast while barely flapping their wings, KPBS environment. Reporter Eric Anderson says the information has implications for understanding the warming climate.

Speaker 2: 00:23 The top of the block, just South of the Torrey Pines golf course is a special place for those looking to take a leap off a cliff to fly

Speaker 3: 00:32 Inland, it heats up and all that cool ocean breeze goes. Yeah.

Speaker 2: 00:35 Beto Michelangelo is the flight director at the Torrey Pines glider port.

Speaker 3: 00:39 And that's what creates a magic here for us soaring, uh, as paragliding pilots and even the burns. Sometimes we'll sit around and wait for the birds to come out and fly to see exactly how good it is.

Speaker 2: 00:50 The grassy field here is a launching pad for hang gliders and model planes. Anything that can ride a stiff ocean breeze, that's climbing the cliff face

Speaker 3: 00:59 And it's classic. Everybody's seen a bird just kind of circling up in the lift. And that's typically what we do when we're flying, just emulating.

Speaker 2: 01:06 And while the paragliders take their cues from birds climbing high above the cliffs, pelicans are using some of the same techniques, gracefully glide along the breaking waves. Pelicans caught the eye of UC San Diego doctoral student Ian Stokes. When he used to surf near Santa Barbara, he points to a video of the birds gliding along a breaking wave.

Speaker 4: 01:29 So here are the wave breaks and they send it up to higher elevation. And then they're able to sort back down to the next crest and there they go. Now they're coming off the wave and they're tracking yet, right? So they're all banking back up, getting off the back and they're swooping into the next wave. And then you see them take off again and they start the ride once again. So they can just really repeat this process.

Speaker 2: 01:51 Pelicans take advantage of the same forces at play along the glider port cliff there surface wind hits the cliffs and goes up. That creates ideal conditions for paragliders on the ocean waves act like the cliff and they move air up. As they roll toward the shore.

Speaker 4: 02:10 Here comes another show in wave wave breaks, and then they come up and out the back,

Speaker 2: 02:14 The pelicans flight highlights a delicate interplay between the ocean and the atmosphere

Speaker 4: 02:19 Exchange of energy between the ocean and the atmosphere is a very prominent driving force in the way that our climate responds to different environmental signals.

Speaker 1: 02:29 So Chicago has a long history of research around the idea of ocean waves and the atmosphere interacting

Speaker 2: 02:37 UC San Diego engineered drew Lucas worked with Stokes to refine an algorithm that explains the physics of how that system works.

Speaker 1: 02:46 It is indeed an equation. What Ian has put together is an equation that relates the form of the ocean wave its speed, its size and its length, which we call it period, or, or, or a wavelength to the amount of wind that is created in the atmosphere.

Speaker 2: 03:06 Lucas has the birds tap into this interplay. They harness the energy created when the waves rise and then crest near the shore. He says the ocean and atmosphere are coupled systems that researchers have been studying for years.

Speaker 1: 03:20 We're engaged in the business of trying to predict the future of the Earth's climate and the ocean and atmosphere system. And those are problems related to how the ocean and atmosphere are communicating information, energy, um, and, and properties.

Speaker 2: 03:41 Lucas says understanding even small mechanisms like the interplay between wind and water, help scientists understand more about the planet. It could also provide input into what might be happening as the oceans and the climate change. Eric Anderson, KPBS news.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.