The Climate Crisis May Have Helped Spawn Massive Locust Swarms in East Africa

A girl tries to chase swarms of desert locusts away from her crops in Kitui county, Kenya on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.Photo: Ben Curtis (AP)

East Africa is currently plagued with locust swarms of biblical proportions, but these swarms aren’t the act of an angry god. According to UN scientists, they may be a result of the human-caused climate crisis.

Hundreds of millions of these spooky creatures are flying across East Africa. The swarms are the worst to hit Ethiopia and Somalia in 25 years and the worst Kenya has seen in 70 years, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a statement. The insects are now plaguing Djibouti and Eritrea, too. By June, their numbers could grow by 500 times, and new swarms could form in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen.

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Locusts swarms aren’t by themselves unusual for the region, but last year, the East African region saw a lot of rain and eight devastating cyclones, which created the kinds of wet conditions that locusts need to breed in these numbers.

That rain came because of warming waters on the African side of the Indian Ocean; warmer waters mean more evaporation and precipitation. “That side of the ocean is much warmer than the other side, which meets with Australia and Indonesia,” Muhammad Azhar Ehsan, a research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society who studies the climate of the region, told Earther. “So the African side saw so much rain, but Australians got a drought.” That drought, of course, has furled the apocalyptic fires the Australian continent has been dealing with since last fall.

In 2018, East Africa saw drought peppered with cyclones. “Those cyclones were really unusual—they even created rainfall in the Empty Quarter,” said Ehsan, referring to the vast desert region in the southern Arabian Peninsula. “That’s a region known for high temperatures and [being] very dry. It never gets rain.” Those cyclones, too, created an extra-long breeding season for locusts, but they mostly lived in remote areas, so humans didn’t notice them at the time.

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“Nobody knew about it,” Keith Cressman, the FAO’s senior locust forecaster, told Buzzfeed News. “They were increasing about 8,000-fold for those nine months, with no disturbance and no control.”

Swarms of desert locusts fly up into the air from crops in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.Photo: Ben Curtis (AP)

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The locusts aren’t just scary—they’re also threatening to exacerbate food insecurity. “A small swarm covering one square kilometer can eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people,” the FAO said.

The creatures have already damaged pasture and croplands in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. “There are potentially severe consequences for the region where nearly 12 million people are coping with severe acute food insecurity and many rely on agriculture for their survival,” says the FAO. The recent floods and droughts had already put severe stress on agriculture, and the locusts storms are making that stress far worse.

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The FAO has called for $70 million to help residents of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia limit the spread of locusts and preserve people’s livelihoods. “Timing and location is crucial. I hope we can work hard day and night so people do not lose their crops,” FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu said in a briefing.

More money will likely be needed, because the locust swarms are expected to grow. And if the Indian Ocean continues to warm, infestations like this could happen more frequently. 

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