Tom Albright is interested in the big picture. He wants to know how environmental change affects plant and animal communities. This can include changes ranging from heat waves and droughts to fires and hurricanes, plus much more. Proficient in Spanish and French, his work has taken him to many parts of the world, including China, Africa and the Caribbean.
As an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Nevada, Reno, Albright collaborates in his research with many different people to enable him to work on a broad scale analyzing data. That includes using a lot of citizen science data.
He received a three-year NASA New Investigator in Earth Sciences award and has a particular interest in birds that began when he and his wife spent their honeymoon in her native country of Nicaragua. "We bought binoculars and found the birds to be so charismatic," he said.
"I think most people are natural scientists," Albright said. "One reason we have so much data on birds is because people love them, and they're happy to collect the information, which makes it easier for us to do the science with regard to avian conservation and biology."
Temperature and how it affects animals is one area of Albright's research. "We think of temperature at the airport as the official reading, but if we put temperature sensors all over we would find the Sahara Desert in a parking lot and the Pacific Northwest on a mountain slope. To understand what's going on, we need to understand how microclimates work. Animals can use microclimates for shade, water or as a refuge from something they're trying to avoid. That's why we put sensors throughout the area we're studying," Albright said.
Similar principles apply to the Lake Tahoe Basin according to Albright. "Tahoe has a rugged topography and huge environmental gradients from high to low elevations which are the kinds of situations I work with throughout Nevada."
In the NASA project, "Desert Birds in a Warming World: Characterizing Thermal Stress with Daily Earth Observation Data in Complex Terrain," Albright and his colleagues are researching the specific mechanisms and their conservation implications by which birds and other animals are affected by climate change and extreme weather. "One way we do this is by using remote sensing, sensor data and GIS to map physiological models of birds across landscapes," Albright said.
For example, researchers map the consecutive days a specific type of bird would experience thermally stressful and potentially lethal conditions. By looking at the averages and specific time periods, they can project into the future with climate models. "This should tell us when and where to expect die offs and when and where we expect birds to avoid certain areas," Albright said.
"We have found in our southern Nevada models that extreme heat waves can knock back ground nesting species by over 30 percent in a season. The species may be dispersing to other locations, the young may not be making it out of the egg stage and surviving, or maybe the birds are putting their resources into their own survival instead of reproduction and caring for their young. Some birds, even if they have access to water and shade, do not have the thermal tolerance to survive. That's why it's important to understand the physiological tolerances of birds and heat."
The educational portion of the NASA grant is called Project H.E.A.T. (hot environments, animals and temperature). Albright and Jacque Ewing-Taylor of the University's Raggio Research Center for STEM education, which promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, held a two-week camp this past summer at the University to help middle school students learn about temperature, how it varies across space and time, how it's measured and analyzed, and how humans and animals deal with it. Coincidently, the camp, which will continue for two more summers, occurred during a historic heat wave.