Dirty bird carcasses tell the story of how air pollution has improved in the last 100 years

Watts Up With That?

What soot-covered, hundred-year-old birds can tell us about saving the environment

Museum collections track soot in the atmosphere throughout the 20th century

From the FIELD MUSEUM

Horned Larks are cute little songbirds with white bellies and yellow chins–at least, now they are. A hundred years ago, at the height of urban smoke pollution in the US, their pale feathers were stained dark gray by the soot in the atmosphere. A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the discoloration of birds in museum collections can be used to trace the amount of black carbon in the air over time and the effects of environmental policy upon pollution.

“The soot on these birds’ feathers allowed us to trace the amount of black carbon in the air over time, and we found that the air at the turn of the century was even more polluted than scientists…

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