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article imageOutbreak of locusts in east Africa nears biblical proportions

By Karen Graham     Feb 9, 2020 in World
The United Nations secretary-general has appealed for “speedy and generous” financial assistance to curb an outbreak of locusts in the eastern African desert, which may be nearing biblical proportions.
On the sidelines of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Antonio Guterres discussed the locust outbreak currently devastating east African nations, reports Bloomberg.
"There is a link between climate change and the unprecedented locust crisis plaguing Ethiopia and East Africa,” Guterres said. “Warmer seas mean more cyclones generating the perfect breeding ground for locusts. Today the swarms are as big as major cities and it is getting worse by the day.”
For Ethiopia, this is the worst locust outbreak in 70 years, while Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea haven't seen such an outbreak in over 25 years. There is a real concern that the outbreak will spread to other countries, in particular, South Sudan and Uganda.
Locusts eating grain sprayed with pesticides.
Locusts eating grain sprayed with pesticides.
Fueling the locusts' destruction is a bounty of vegetation brought on by the heavy rains from the monsoons and with more rains expected in the region in the coming weeks, the current population of the voracious eating machines is expected to grow up to 500 times by June, when drier weather is expected, according to the Associated Press.
However, Dominique Burgeon, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) emergency and resilience director says that drier weather may not be the solution to stopping the outbreak. He says the density of the locusts is now so high that even normal moisture can lead to another generation.
Scientists point to a changing world climate - Global warming is creating more extreme cyclones to form over warming ocean waters. The “sort of new normal,” Burgeon said, adding that the FAO has requested $76 million from international donors,m but so far, they have $19 million on hand.
For now, farmers throughout East Africa now face food shortages, as the plague of locusts consumes both crops in the field and in storage.
People have resorted to banging cans and waving sticks to try to drive the locusts away
People have resorted to banging cans and waving sticks to try to drive the locusts away
A special kind of grasshopper
There are over 7,000 known grasshopper varieties around the world, yet only 20 species can transform into what’s known as a gregarious phenotype. This means those 20 species actually change as they socialize into swarms.
The kind of desert locust currently plaguing East Africa is in fact named for this tendency to socialize: Schistocerca gregaria, according to Wired.
Locust swarm on February 3  2020.
Photo: Sven Torfinn
Locust swarm on February 3, 2020. Photo: Sven Torfinn
FAO / Newsroom
The interesting thing about desert locusts is that they need moist soil to lay their eggs, to keep them from drying out. Once the eggs hatch, the young locusts devour the vegetation where they were born.
“If they were to stay locally, one potential is that there are too many of them and they would run out of food,” says Arianne Cease, director of the Global Locust Initiative at Arizona State University. “And so they migrate to find better resources.”
To get to a new food location, the locusts go through a transformation. They change color from a drab tan into a striking yellow and black. And generally, unless immediate action by way of spraying pesticides is taken, the swarms will just continue to grow until they run out of food.
More about Locusts, East africa, Global warming, Schistocerca gregaria, Food shortages
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