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Geomagnetic Activity and its Effect on Racing Pigeons....
Author: BilcoTitle: Geomagnetic Activity and its Effect on Racing Pigeons.
Date: 2003-07-31 22:53:53Uploaded by: webmaster
In a world where electronics, computers and the commonplace transmission of data from one corner of the world to the other at lightning speeds, the racing pigeon and its keeper might seem very out of place, but there is a connection between the two.

In very much a layman’s terms, our pigeons have both friend and enemy in Solar Radiation. That is the electrical energy emitted by the sun and on which all life depends. Without its warmth, and the effects it has on the very existence of all living things, we would be a dead spore in space, all of us, the world, its seas and land masses, just so much debris and dust..

One the one hand solar radiation is the giver of life, and on the other it can also be an enemy in that too great an abundance of it mucks up the works. Pigeons rely on the sun to navigate. It is perhaps the mainstay of their ability to discover their location in relation to their homes, for by their own instinctive ability they do in mere seconds what we allegedly sophisticated human beings take several million pounds worth of electronic apparatus to do, that is to locate themselves on the surface of the planet to an astonishingly accurate degree. Not only that but they then set about correcting the situation, by plotting an aerial course that will return themselves to their home location.

Mother Nature decreed that the pigeon should be a granivorous creature, i.e. one that eats grains as opposed to flies, fish, fruits or other sources of sustenance. Food does not fly, or swim into its orbit, and if it attempted to bring those grains back one at a time to feed its young, it would perish in short order, so a thoughtful Mother Nature supplied the bird with a crop which it fills with grain, and then returns by its own unique system of navigation to its home location. To do that it has to be a good navigator. If not it would then spend all its food in sustaining itself until it eventually found where it lived, by which time the food it carried would have been digested.

However, if things go wrong - as they do even in the best regulated circles - there are times when there is too much radiation emitted by the sun, in what are termed ‘Solar Flares’ gigantic flares of energy that blast out from the sun’s surface into space, and which liberate billions of times more radiation than is ‘normal’ for our system. When this happens, a bird’s ability to navigate is baffled, unsettled and unbalanced, and the bird can be lost for days at a time if it is any distance from its usual home location (which is why it can also navigate over short distances by the use of landmarks). Though scientists are not sure of what causes solar flares, they do know that they are bursts of plasma and electromagnetic radiation. These bursts, which appear in an 11-year cycle, produce radio waves which penetrate the Earth's atmosphere, often totally disrupting radio transmissions on Earth.

A geomagnetic storm occurs when unusually strong surges of solar wind (charged particles from the sun) hit the Earth. This effect causes variations in the magnetic field which surrounds the Earth. The ‘Field Magnetism’ of the Earth itself being upset by this excess radiation, fails to aid the bird in the usual fashion, for as the bird detects these fields it discovers that they are disturbed from their usual pattern, and thus it cannot rely on them as it normally does under conditions of obscured visibility. Not all solar activity affects the Earth because the Earth's magnetic field repels most of the solar wind. Just occasionally solar flares, prominences, and coronal holes (holes in the sun's atmosphere) send high levels of electromagnetic radiation toward the Earth in the form of X-rays. However, in recent years, pigeon keepers have discovered that these bursts of solar radiation have an upsetting effect on their birds, and the wiser ones among them have sought out ways and means to ascertain when such emissions are effected, and to refrain from training or racing their birds on those days, thus lessening the risk of losing them.

When a large burst of radiation is released into space, it has the effects of (1) causing geomagnetic activity within the earth’s magnetic fields, though not to the point of causing seismic activity to take place, and (2) to cause considerable disturbance in radio waves within the earth’s atmosphere, even to the extent of total radio ‘blackouts’ and of course, considerable compass disturbance giving totally false magnetic readings. These figures are therefore of considerable importance to aircraft, marine and space activity vehicles, and in the UK to the oil industry, the National Grid, the UK Ministry of Defence, the Ordnance Survey, the European Space Agency and, through its interest in North Sea oil production, the UK Government Health and Safety Executive.

Several Geomagnetic Stations have been built and are maintained round the clock right round the earth in different countries. Their readings are collated by International agreement, and freely made available to all nations. The world hub of all these activities is located at the Space Environment Center at Boulder, Colorado, in the USA, and there are world data centres in Denmark, Japan and elsewhere. All nations make multi-purpose use of the data provided from all sources.

Geomagnetic activity is measured by what is termed the ‘A’ Index, which measures from zero in nil disturbance to a maximum of four hundred (400) Nanoteslas ((nT). A unit of magnetism 10.0E-09 tesla, equivalent to a gamma (10.0E-05 gauss) under severe magnetic storm conditions. The radio atmosphere disturbances are measured by what is termed the ‘K’ Index, which measures from zero to nine (9) in maximum disturbance conditions. Anything reading over 150 in geomagnetic activity, or 4 in ‘K’ Index figures, is considered unsafe conditions in which to train or race pigeons. Further, these readings have also been found to influence the surface weather in various ways, much of which is still being slowly discovered and understood. There is quite a bit of evidence that changes in solar activity do have measurable affects on weather. The correlation between the temperature at specific locations and the 11 year solar cycle are sometimes quite strong. Dr Karen Labitske in Germany has done a lot of research in this area. The physics is still highly speculative at this point though.

In company with several hundred other pigeon fanciers in Europe, USA and Australia, the writer has measured these conditions and compared the resulting training and racing returns under the varying figures, and is convinced that here exists a good indication of when one can, or can not train/race with confidence. Further, because solar flares can be detected several days before the radiation they release reaches the earth, it is possible to forecast with a reasonable degree of accuracy when such unsatisfactory conditions may be expected.

Flares (sudden brightenings) affect the ionosphere immediately, with adverse effects upon communications and radio navigation (GPS and LORAN). Accompanying radio bursts from the Sun are expected to exceed cell phone system noise tolerances 2 - 3 times per solar cycle.

Solar energetic particles arrive in 20 minutes to several hours, threatening the electronics of spacecraft and unprotected astronauts, as they rise to 10,000 times the quiet background flux.

Ejected bulk plasma and its pervading magnetic field arrive in 30 - 72 hours (depending upon initial speed and deceleration) setting off a geomagnetic storm, causing currents to flow in the magnetosphere and particles to be energized. The currents cause some atmospheric heating and increased drag for satellite operators; they also induce voltages and currents in long conductors at ground level, adversely affecting pipelines and electric power grids. The energetic particles cause the “northern lights”, as well as surface and deep dielectric charging of spacecraft; subsequent electrostatic discharge of the excess charge build-up can damage spacecraft electronics. The ionosphere departs from its normal state, due to the currents and the energetic particles, thereby adversely affecting communications and radio-navigation. So, after 2-5 days' travel through space, the plasma reaches the earth's magnetic field compressing it on the daylight side of the earth, and stretches it into a "tail" on the nightside.

A few of the particles penetrate down to the earth along the lines of magnetic field in the polar areas. Most, however, are forced around the earth by the magnetic field and enter the "tail" which stretches out into a long cylinder running away out into space beyond the earth. Its diameter is equivalent to 30-60 times the earth's radius, and its length up to 1000 times the same radius. It is, in effect, as if the earth's magnetic field creates a tunnel in the plasma current from the solar wind. Inside one end is the earth, and around its surface the earth's magnetism and the solar wind interact.

Rayleigh-Taylor instability often occurs in tropical latitudes, causing rising bubbles to ascend out of the top of the ionosphere and substantially distorting the normal layering. This causes radio beams propagating through the rising columns to suffer up to 30 dB of scintillation; GPS receivers lose lock and communication signals break up as a result.

The communications industry has lots of problems with solar events. Solar activity can garble radio transmissions, fry the electronics on satellites and in antennas. The power industry has problems with solar events as well, as their transformers can be overloaded. Almost any industry that uses electronics in space can be affected by extremely powerful bursts, but these are rare.

Small wonder then, that solar radiation upsets the navigational ability of our pigeons. There has been much discourse over many years that ordinary radio/TV and now telephone radiation also has this effect on our birds, and there is much that is yet to be understood in this sphere. Suffice it to say however, that radiation does disturb avian navigation, and the sensible fancier would do well to acquaint himself with the facilities that exist to ascertain where and when solar disturbances are taking place, and whether or not the forecasts put out by Geomagnetic Stations are sufficiently high for him to take remedial action. The technical descriptions are not mine, they come from the Space Environmental Centre in the USA and the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, to whom I am indebted for their use.

In Europe, using an ordinary home computer, one can access these stations at the following locations, and the European stations are the ones most likely to aid the fancier residing in Europe, just as the stations in the USA are of most use to our American cousins.

The Swedish Institute of Space Physics, which supplies Manetometer data from Sweden) - http://www.irf.se/.
The University of Tromso (Norway) who also supply K Index estimates, at http://geo.phys.uit.no/gomag.html.
The Sodankyla Geophysical Observatory, Finland, at http://space.sgo.fi.
And (most useful) the Brussels Sunspot Index data centre at http://sidc.oma.be/index.php3 They publish weekly ‘A’ Index data, from which ‘K’ Index data can be easily computed, and in addition offer an email service giving immediate “Presto” warnings of Solar Flares and Geomagnetic Storms. They also pass on the Wingst (Germany) ‘K’ Index records, very helpful indeed! You can also obtain K Indices direct weekly from Hartland in Devon. There is of course much more, this chapter is intended as just a guide to set the inquisitive minds among my readers to start searching as I have done, and to continue seeking knowledge from the many thousands of sources available to them once they care to start looking.

Too many people in this world see the pigeon fancier as a cloth-capped dullard, whose intelligence is limited to the price of corn and how far it is to the next race point. Those of us who know this not to be the case are sometimes slightly amused by such popular misconceptions, but there are also among us those who object to this belief and would be happy to defend our hobby against such sarcasm.

We have lost around 5,000 fanciers from our sport in the last two years, mainly I suspect because of the unsustainable bird losses. I feel sure that many of these losses are due to modern radiation causes, be they natural or man-made, in addition to the bitter predation we now face from birds of prey. The knowledge of what natural phenomena we are up against, and possibly how to combat it may well lie within the data made freely available by the agencies detailed on previous pages. Sadly, as I have mentioned earlier, there are those in the Fancy who, for divers reasons, ridicule any effort by others to educate the fancier because they see themselves as blessed with a Divine right to vend any curative or helpful idea, or to portray any advice or knowledge (and their version is not always the correct one by any stretch of the imagination). Time, and the limit of their intelligence ultimately displays their ignorance for all to see so we are thankful for small mercies!

We are, as yet, barely scratching at the surface of a subject that our predecessors knew little or nothing about. Perhaps our children will be as aware of the influences of the stars as matter-of-fact data, served up on every blackboard or computer screen as day to day trivia in the fullness of time.

© Blico

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