While many of us think of the weather as merely a guide for our wardrobes, there are numerous industries, such as aviation and energy, that depend on meteorology for their business.
A drought, for instance, will certainly have an impact on hydroelectric facilities in California and on farmers and ranchers.
That could be why many Americans spend so much money on instrumentation for their homes and businesses to track the weather. Animals seem to have an innate knack to do just that.
Enter longtime San Luis Obispo resident Mike Brazil, who has been breeding and training American racing pigeons for more than 50 years.
These birds can live up to 20 years and, like thoroughbred racehorses, are fed the finest grain and treated with tender loving care.
On certain days, Mike will drive more than 450 miles to Northern California to release his flock along with other groups of pigeons.
After traveling northward in a specially designed trailer, these athletic and highly trained birds are raring to get into the air and fly back home to the Central Coast.
Upon release, the pigeons go straight up in the sky, like a rocket out of Vandenberg Air Force Base and circle overhead for a few moments to get their bearings and judge the winds.
“The sky can turn nearly black with so many pigeons in the air at once,” Mike said.
These pigeons rely on the sun, landmarks, Earth’s magnetic field and even smell to navigate their way home.
Most impressively, they use their own instinctive ability to find the location of tail winds in mere seconds, unlike meteorologists with the most sophisticated weather analysis tools, who may take hours. The airspeed of a racing pigeon is roughly 45 mph. With tailwinds, their actual ground speed can reach nearly 100 mph for brief periods.
During the spring and summer, the winds through the Salinas Valley are often out of the northwest at the surface, heading toward the southeast below the temperature inversion layer. These winds are often strong and persistent, perfect conditions for pigeons.
Eric Wessel of Atascadero has seen his pigeons flying along Highway 101 near the ground, brilliantly avoiding obstacles with a twitch of their tail or a beat of their wing.
If a cold front is coming down coastline, the winds near the surface are often out of the southeast and blowing toward the northwest, producing strong head winds for the birds, while the winds higher up in the atmosphere can actually be blowing in the opposite direction.
Somehow, these birds know this, and they can be seen as tiny specks streaking across the sky as they take advantage of the tail winds.
Most researchers agree that these birds probably have an internal compass they use to navigate by following the Earth’s magnetic field. Scientists have discovered clusters of nerve endings wrapped around magnetic iron oxide on each side of the pigeon’s upper beak, which may act as a compass.
Racing pigeons are affected not only by the weather at the surface of the Earth, but also by space weather. On cloudy days, solar storms can disrupt a pigeon’s natural compass, causing it to lose its way.
After about eight to 10 hours of flying southward from Northern California, these birds arrive at home and are carefully logged in to determine who won the race.