Locust Swarms Are Getting So Big That We Need Radar to Track Them

The desert locust upsurge is yet another of 2020’s horrors

Chris Baraniuk
OneZero
Published in
5 min readJul 24, 2020

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Photo: Jasius/Getty Images

In June, remote sensing analyst Raj Bhagat noticed a strange signal on India’s weather radar. It looked like a small band of rain near Delhi, moving southwest, but Bhagat was convinced it was a locust swarm.

“People began to report it,” he says, referring to sightings on the ground. Giant locust swarms had spread to northern India earlier in the year, ravaging crops and destroying people’s livelihoods. “The timelines were perfectly matching.”

In mid-July, Bhagat, who works at the World Resources Institute India, identified a similar formation, this time near the city of Lucknow. He posted it to Twitter with the hashtag #LocustsAttack.

The desert locust upsurge is yet another of 2020’s horrors. In dry years, the insects, which can grow up to four inches long and are shades of green, black, or yellow depending on their life stage, remain localized to the deserts of Africa, the Middle East, and southwest Asia. Lately, however, the weather has been wetter than usual. Desert locusts have bred prolifically and migrated in huge swarms to countries that don’t always see them in large numbers, including several nations along the horn of Africa. Other places, such as the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, haven’t had a locust invasion in decades.

The locust outbreak is currently classed by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) as an “upsurge.” If the insects begin migrating in large bands — which could happen within a couple years, should things worsen — they’ll be officially considered a plague.

A swarm covering one square kilometer eats as much food as 35,000 people every day. The damage done so far is already appalling. The UN says the food supply of 25 million people in East Africa has been threatened by the insects. In Ethiopia alone, they’ve destroyed around 200,000 hectares of crops. Meanwhile, in India, the insects have chewed up 50,000 hectares.

The recent outbreak may be just a hint of what is to come, thanks to the extreme weather expected as a result of climate change. Such conditions, including periods of excessive rainfall, would be adored by…

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Chris Baraniuk
OneZero

Freelance science and technology journalist. Based in Northern Ireland.