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Extreme weather dramatically increases the threat of desert locust swarms

Desert locusts, recognized by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization as the most destructive migratory pest in the world, have been identified as a growing threat due to climate change. These insects are capable of traveling in swarms of millions and devastating crops across vast regions. 

The experts report that outbreaks of desert locusts could increase in frequency and severity due to erratic weather patterns fueled by global warming. 

In particular, the researchers found that extreme weather events such as increased rainfall and extreme wind conditions may lead to bigger and worse desert locust outbreaks.

Increasingly difficult outbreaks 

Desert locusts are found in dry areas of northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. They thrive in conditions where extreme rainfall follows prolonged periods of aridity. These conditions create ideal breeding grounds for these pests.

A square-kilometer swarm contains 80 million locusts. In a single day, this swarm can wipe out enough food crops to feed 35,000 people. The study authors said these outbreaks will be increasingly hard to prevent and control in a warming climate.

Major hotspots for desert locusts

With an analysis of incidents from 1985 to 2020, the study underscores a significant correlation between climate change and locust outbreaks. Notably, the researchers identified ten countries, including Kenya, Morocco, Niger, Yemen, and Pakistan, as major hotspots among 48 affected nations. 

The research brings to light the worst outbreak in 25 years, which struck East Africa in 2019 and 2020. The outbreak caused unprecedented agricultural damage and threatened the livelihoods of millions by impacting food security.

Favorable conditions for outbreaks 

Professor Xiaogang He at the National University of Singapore, who led the research, said more extreme weather events will add unpredictability to locust outbreaks. 

The researchers linked the magnitude of desert locust outbreaks to specific weather and land conditions, such as air temperature, precipitation, soil moisture, and wind patterns. The study also highlights the role of El Niño in exacerbating the conditions favorable for locust outbreaks.

Douglas Tallamy is a professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware who was not part of the research. He noted that erratic weather and rainfall trigger spurts in vegetation and therefore fuels enormous population growth in locusts. “As such variability increases, it is logical to predict that locust outbreaks will increase as well,” said Tallamy.

Economic impacts and food security 

The financial implications of locust outbreaks are staggering, with past events costing hundreds of millions in response efforts and causing billions in crop damage. This study highlights the urgent need for action against climate change. The research also underscores the urgent need for adaptive strategies to combat the threat of desert locust outbreaks. 

As the habitats of these pests expand and the frequency of extreme weather events rises, the global community faces a critical challenge in safeguarding food production systems against the looming threat of increased locust activity.

Broader implications of desert locust swarms

Countries affected by desert locust outbreaks are already grappling with climate-driven extremes like droughts, floods and heat waves, and the potential escalation of locust risks in these regions could exacerbate existing challenges, said Professor He. “Failure to address these risks could further strain food production systems and escalate the severity of global food insecurity.”

He hopes the study will help countries understand the climate impacts on locusts, particularly in the context of food security. He also urges for better regional and continental cooperation to respond quickly and build early warning systems.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


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