The Swarms of the Future: Locusts During climate change

Alexi Barnstone - Science & Technology


Yet again, yesterday, for the Nth time, I scrolled past the same meme. The photo depicts two aliens, one leaning over the shoulder of the other. Curious, the first extraterrestrial asks the second;

“What are you up to”

The second responds;

“Watching season 2020 of earth. Shit’s gettin wild.”

It is both hilarious and poignant. A stark reminder that our contemporary is plagued with atrocity; the rise of authoritarianism, populism, unfounded conspiracy, Covid19, police brutality, the list goes on. Media headlines undulate in parallel. What crisis next? What catastrophe will dominate tomorrow’s headline?

But even tidal waves can be lost in an ocean. Currently, locusts are sweeping across 23 countries in East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, dessamating crop yields. It is the worst locust swarm in 70 years in the region, estimated to cost the Horn of Africa roughly 8.5 billion USD in damage to crop and agriculture yield. Locusts put food safety at risk for some 23 million people in the Horn of Africa alone. 

The locusts swarms can travel roughly 150 kilometers a day (95 Miles), eating their body weight in greenery. In swarms of up to 10 billion individual insects, the swarms themselves can span the size of cities. One swarm in Kenya was reported to be 60 kilometers (37 miles) by 40 kilometers (25 miles), 24 times the size of Paris. 

These dark clouds of insects destroy crops at unbelievable rates, and put the food safety of millions at risk. According to a recent report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization a 1 square kilometer swarm of locusts can eat the equivalent amount of food that 35,000 people would eat in a single day. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that locusts could threaten 10% of the world’s food supply. 

The damage of locust swarms on our food security is vast and severe, threatening the health of entire continents. And, a changing climate may be the catalyst in exacerbating the severity and the frequency of swarms. In a future with unpredictable and unprecedented weather patterns, unprecedented damage from locusts swarms is a near guarantee.


What are Locusts?

Locusts are a kind of grasshopper. Usually unharmful, hopping around their biome in search of food and privacy from other grasshoppers, locusts are unnoticed insects. In their ‘grasshopper phase’ they are unimportant, insignificant, normal insects. But, unlike other kinds of grasshoppers, locusts have a fascinating and terrifying capacity; phenotypic plasticity. In other words, they can change their own physiology depending on their environment. 

When environmental conditions are right, locusts undergo radical physiological changes. They change colour from an innocent green to a menacing brown/yellow, they change size, and their behaviour. They enter what is known as the ‘gregarious phase.’

Instead of avoiding each other, they become attracted to one another. In a frenzy of feasting and mating locusts begin to swarm and consume, engaging in migratory feasts across mass swaths of land, putting the food security of millions at risk as they ravage the landscape.

Climate change has been linked directly to the locust swarms currently traversing from the Horn of Africa.  Abnormally wet weather in normally arid lands are linked to the multiplication of locusts. The Horn of Africa had 400 percent more rainfall in December of 2019, which created the environmental conditions for the locusts to enter the gregarious phase. 

The mass rainfall was a result of the Indian Ocean dipole, an event accentuated due to climate change. The Indian Ocean dipole is an irregular oscillation of sea temperatures, where the eastern part of the ocean becomes warmer while the western part becomes polar and vice versa. 

Rain poured down in Eastern Africa, and locusts swarmed. On the opposite side of the same problem, forest fires destroyed Australia. Both a product of the same dipole in the same climate crisis.


The Future Swarms

The anthropocene will continue to fetishise industry, and industry will continue to lead to a shift in environmental conditions. With these shifts, will come natural disasters unprecedented in human history. Disasters that institutions of the contemporary are ill prepared to cope with. Swarms of locusts - placing millions at risk of starvation - is yet another atrocity we can already add to the long, diverse list of 2020. A prelude to the potentiality of a changed climate’s vengeance. 


Written by Alexi Barnstone

Alexi is a current Honours student at the University of Sydney studying political philosophy.  Having graduated majoring in psychology and philosophy, his fascination with climate change centres around how the human condition and government will be altered in the years to come.

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