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Albatross flight illustration

Sailors of the Air

In a recently published paper, oceanographer Phillip Richardson capitalized on his sailing and flying experiences to study the flight of albatrosses, which can travel great distances without flapping their wings. He concluded that the birds utilize the power of above-ocean wind shear while tacking like an airborne sailboat, a strategy he calls dynamic soaring. Above a wave, winds blow progressively faster the higher you ascend. As albatrosses rise, they cross a boundary into an area of brisk winds, gaining airspeed that allows them to climb effortlessly to heights of 10 to 15 meters above the ocean. Then they bank downwind and swoop down into another wave trough, adding airspeed as they cross the boundary in reverse, and begin the cycle again.
(Illustration by WHOI Graphic Services, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)


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