Climate Crisis Brings India's Worst Locust Invasion in Decades
The locusts spawned a swarm of social media posts Monday when they entered the city of Jaipur, as The Indian Express reported, but the crop-devouring insects have been wreaking havoc since May in an invasion that both began earlier and is extending farther than usual. Several farmers told The Wire that they hadn't seen an invasion this severe in their lifetimes.
"Even my father, who is 86, said he hasn't ever seen anything like this. Only heard about this in folk tales," 64-year-old Madhya Pradesh farmer Sooraj Pandey told The Wire.
Locusts are not uncommon in the northwest Indian state of Rajasthan, but this year they have also entered the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh for the first time since 1993 and the state of Maharashtra for the first time since 1974. They also do not usually move so far into Rajasthan from the border with Pakistan, according to AFP reporting published by Al Jazeera.
So far, the insects have devoured almost 50,000 hectares or 123,500 acres of agricultural land in seven Indian states, The Associated Press reported, putting pressure on farmers already struggling with the impacts of the coronavirus lockdown.
The government has responded with pesticides, drones and sprayers mounted on vehicles, while farmers have resorted to banging plates, whistling and throwing stones to drive the locusts away.
"These insects are giving us sleepless nights. We are more worried about them than the virus," Mandeep Singh, a cotton farmer from Punjab, told The Associated Press.
A swarm of 40 million locusts can cover the space of a square kilometer (approximately 0.4 square miles) and eat the same as 35,000 people in a day, according to UN Food and Agricultural Organization data reported by The Wire.
Unusually large locust swarms bred on the Arabian Peninsula in early 2019 following heavy rains and cyclones in the region, according to AFP. Those ideal breeding conditions were the product of the climate crisis, as warmer than usual temperatures in the western Indian Ocean fueled the storms.
"These warm waters were caused by the phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole — with warmer than usual waters to its west, and cooler waters to its east. Rising temperatures due to global warming amplified the dipole and made the western Indian Ocean particularly warm," Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll told The Wire.
This time desert locust attack is severe. They have arrived earlier, in huge numbers & now reached till Panna in MP. The changing climate conditions are linked with locust growth in east Africa. The swarms has potential of eating everything & destroy the crops. This from Panna. pic.twitter.com/8aqLa8lA4O— Parveen Kaswan, IFS (@ParveenKaswan) May 26, 2020
The locusts have already caused significant damage in East Africa earlier in 2020 before migrating to India through Iran and Pakistan.
India's locust situation could get even worse, both this year and in the future.
In the short term, more locusts could arrive from Africa in June, according to AFP. There is also a concern that the locusts already in India could breed, The Associated Press pointed out.
"It is an alarming situation," KL Gurjar, a top official at India's Locust Warning Organization, told The Associated Press. "But we are more worried of their breeding. If that happens, it could be devastating for our farmlands."
In the future, climate change could also make locust invasions like this year's more common.
"Climate change may well play a role here, mainly because, according to forecasts by international climate researchers, precipitation will increase in the southern Arabian Peninsula and northern East Africa," University of Trier biodiversity scientist Axel Hochkirch told The Wire. "This means that there will be more frequent 'very humid' phases, such as we have had since 2018, and it is therefore possible that such swarms will simply occur more frequently."
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
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The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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