The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Choosing the Future

A photo of what looks like the marqee of an old movie theater. On top, where the name of the theater would be is the word "World." Where the names of the movies would usually be is only the sentence "The world is temporarily closed."

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

 Throughout the enforced quiet and solitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, the planet has gotten something of a break. Greenhouse gas emissions have dropped, smog has cleared, and animals have felt free to reclaim places they normally cannot go. Of course, the news is not as good as it may appear; as I’ve discussed before, polluting industries are likely to make up for lost time later, and meanwhile the public health crisis provides convenient cover for the erosion of many important environmental protections.

For a disease to force an end to pollution, it would have to be much more severe than COVID-19 is likely to be.

But what COVID019 cannot force, we can freely choose. We’ve breathed cleaner air, seen clearer water, known a greater intimacy with wild animals and, in many cases, with each other. Do we want to go back? Or do we want to go forward?

Forward!

OK, but how? Clearly we can’t stay in lockdown forever—some of us never locked down in the first place, either by choice or through economic necessity or civic duty. Others are being driven into poverty at this moment, struggling to survive with little or no income and no reduction of rent and other demands. We might be able to stick with it long enough to beat COVID, but it’s not a permanent solution.

So what we need to figure out is exactly which aspects of lockdown are good, environmentally speaking, and of these which can we maintain long-term without too much trouble.

I had wanted to do this article as a research piece, but the information I would need is not easily available and I already have one master’s degree and don’t need another. So instead this will be a post more about asking questions than about answering them.

A photo of a jet plane high in the sky--it looks very small--drawing a white jet-trail diagonally across a black background.

Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

 First Question….

Exactly how does the lockdown yield environmental benefits? What aren’t we doing now, and which gives us our best bang for our buck? It’s a good and important question. If you find and answer, please let me know. My guess involves the following:

  • We’re not flying. We’re not flying much, anyway. Air-travel continues, but at a much-reduced rate.

  • We’re not driving. Again, we haven’t stopped driving entirely, but as most of us aren’t working, taking our kids to school, or going much of anywhere fun, there is much less traffic. So I have heard, anyway. Our local roads actually look pretty normal on the rare occasions I go out.

  • We’re not buying stuff we don’t need. Stores are closed, we’re encouraged to stay out of them, and most of us don’t have much money anyway, so we’re mostly only buying essentials. Cutting back on inessentials reduces demand, which slows production, which reduces industrial emissions. So I gather, anyway.

I have not heard any reports of lockdown closing factories directly (the cutting of supply despite continued demand) except in meat processing—sadly, I have heard nothing to suggest that the meat industry has reduced its production of animals to adjust to the closing of some meat-packing plants. Animals who reach their slaughter size without a facility ready to slaughter them are killed to make room for new animals coming in, the meat and their deaths wasted. Aside from the ethical dimensions of that situation, the meat that isn’t being eaten has the same large carbon footprint as the meat that is.

Second Question

Let’s try an equation:

A – B = C

A is the emission reduction achieved by reducing a given activity (such as driving) to lockdown levels, B is the heartache and difficulty caused by the reduction, and C is the advisability of continuing the reduction after lockdown ends.

For any given activity, what are the values of A, B, and C?

Because as much as some of us like to instinctively just do without stuff for the good of the planet, there is nothing inherently helpful in asceticism, and too much denial is bad for the movement and, arguably, bad for the soul. We have to figure out what’s worth giving up and what isn’t.

We can approximate these figures by looking at carbon footprint estimates—something with a big footprint is likely to have a big value for A—but we can’t be sure. For example, we know flying has a large footprint, but a slight reduction in the number of flights combined with a drastic reduction in number of passengers (meaning planes flying almost empty) could actually lead to a higher per-passenger footprint for air travel.

Third Question

How much of the heartache we’re dealing with has less to do with what we’ve given up and more to do with how we’ve given it up—suddenly, with little time to prepare, either as individuals or as a society? And to what extent are some aspects of lockdown making others harder than they otherwise would be?

For example, mass transit has been limited or reduced in many areas, meaning that while we’re not on the road as much, when we are on the road we’re in individual vehicles, blunting the benefits of traveling less. Similarly, the community spirit many people have discovered is limited by the demands of social distancing. If we stayed home together and could actually be together that would be better yet for our communities, wouldn’t it?

As a related issue, the fact that we’re all staying home and apart because of a pandemic means that we don’t just stay home when it’s boring or inconvenient, we also stay home when it’s dangerous or otherwise awful. Domestic violence seems to be up. Child abuse could be, too. Masks make communication harder for people with hearing problems or auditory processing problems, and life shouldn’t be harder for them. Single parents trying to work from home find themselves also responsible for their kids’ academics.

In suggesting that some aspects of lockdown should continue, I don’t mean they should continue like this. I mean that some of us are noticing advantages, and we have the opportunity to find ways to keep some of those advantages without so much of the difficulty.

We can achieve it through creative problem-solving and a willingness to try new ways of accomplishing what we need to. For example, while some work really shouldn’t be done from home except as an awkward stop-gap, maybe we can use the tools we’ve learned to cut back on commuting and business travel?

Forward?

Two people standing on a city street with vehicles and a few people in the background. The people in the foreground are standing at a microphone. One of them, a man with very long, thin dreds, is playing a guitar. The other, a woman with short, white hair, is dressed in a white jacket and a gray scarf. They are both singing. These are not my neighbors, this is a stock photo, but my neighbors too were a couple with a microphone and a guitar.

Photo by Thomas Le on Unsplash

 What lockdown is giving us is a chance to examine our lives both individually and collectively, a chance to stop business as usual and make some decisions about what we want to do next. Yes, of course, where lockdown is causing problems for you I wish you godspeed in getting rid of those problems—personally, I don’t think it has to be as difficult as it is. Our society could do a better job at taking care of our people than we do. But those of you who are really OK, or those of you who are OK with some aspects of this new normal, even if not with others, now you know something important. You know that your “OK” is more flexible than you thought it was.

The future isn’t going to look like the past. Climate change assures us of this– “unsustainable” means can’t be sustained, after all. We have a choice. We can either allow increasing severe weather, more fires and pandemics and plagues of all sorts to change our lives for us, or we can come together and decide what we want to change.

Achieving sustainability will require giving things up, but they don’t have to be the important things—and what we get in exchange could be sweet and heart-warming and lovely.

Look, I don’t have any illusions that COVID-19 is going to automatically trigger any kind of new, eco-conscious lifestyle, not any more than it will fix and other of the societal ills it has made so glaringly obvious in the past few months. In fact, economies are already opening back up, some parts of the world are returning to normal, or trying to, and skies are doubtless starting to re-darken with smog.

But they don’t have to. If you like clear skies and clean waters and sharing driveway concerts with your neighbors, and you don’t want to lose these things again you don’t have to,


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But It’s May!

A satellite image of a tropical cyclone making lanfall on a large gray-brown landmass. This is not Tropical Storm Arthur specifically.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

So, there’s a tropical storm out in the Atlantic.

Or, at least there was one recently; the storm named Arthur (not to be confused with other storms named Arthur in recent years). Although Arthur itself was not especially destructive and never achieved hurricane status, it’s remarkable in that hurricane season won’t actually start for another week and a half. It’s May, a time of year when the Atlantic Ocean is supposedly too cold still to feed this kind of storm.

So, this here is a slam-dunk bit of evidence of climate change, right?

Well, it is and it isn’t.

Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season

(Yes, I titled this section with the name of a Jimmy Buffet song. You can go hear the song here)

Six years ago, I wrote a post on hurricanes and climate change that did a good job of explaining certain basics. Otherwise unattributed quotes come from that post.

Defining Terms

“Hurricane” technically refers to only one subset of a whole category of storms that share the same structure.

Tropical cyclone” is the generic term that covers tropical storms, hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones. All these storms have a distinct eye and draw their energy from the evaporation of water, rather than from temperature differences between adjacent air masses as extra-tropical cyclones do.

“Tropical storm” refers to a tropical cyclone with sustained winds of anywhere from 39 MPH to 74 MPH. Once a storm intensifies to 75 MPH or beyond, it is called a typhoon in the Northwest Pacific, a cyclone in the South Pacific or the Indian Ocean, and a hurricane everywhere else. I have not found any explanation for this diversity of names for the same kind of storm. Perhaps it is a relic from a time before we knew they were all the same.

So what we normally call the hurricane season should be called the tropical cyclone season–after all, Arthur wasn’t a hurricane, but its formation outside of the season still attracts attention.

Each storm basin has its own season. In the North Atlantic, the season officially runs from June 1st to November 30th, but tropical cyclones outside of those dates in other parts of the world aren’t necessarily remarkable.

Introducing Arthur

A person with long hair and a striped black-and-white shirt stands facing away from the camera and looking at dramatic, dark, roiling stormclouds. In the distance is an odd, pinkish area that might be a curtain of rain.

Photo by Shashank Sahay on Unsplash

On May 16th, 2020, a large, multi-day rainstorm in the Florida Strait was recognized as a tropical depression, meaning it had an eye and drew its energy  from the evaporation of water. It was thus the first tropical cyclone of the 2020 North Atlantic season. A few hours later, its sustained winds topped 39 MPH, making it a tropical storm. It was given the name Arthur–every tropical storm found in the North Atlantic gets a name from an alphabetized list of alternating male and female names, so the first storm of this year would have been named Arthur no matter when it occurred. Each list gets re-used every six years (indeed, I remember being rained on by the last Arthur), although the names of particularly notable storms are retired. There will never be another Katrina, for example.

This year’s Arthur moved north as its winds intensified to around 50 mph. It did not make landfall but brushed the Outer Banks before heading further out to sea and then, oddly, turning south towards Bermuda. On May 19th, the storm’s designation was changed to “post-tropical cyclone,” as it was no longer gaining strength from evaporating water. However, a storm does not need to be tropical or dangerous, and Arthur’s story is not necessarily over yet, as of this writing.

Unseasonable Storms

Arthur is not the first North Atlantic tropical cyclone to occur in May. In fact, tropical cyclones can form in the Atlantic any month of the year–and have. Hurricane season is not a law of physics but rather a rule of them; meteorologists, government officials, tourist agents, and anyone else who needs to think about the likelihood of hurricanes know it’s best to keep an eye out from June through the end of November. The occasional unseasonal storm doesn’t change the pattern, especially since out-of-season storms are usually weak and rarely make landfall.

But this is the sixth year in a row that the first named storm has occurred before June 1st.

2016 was particularly odd, as it ha two pre-season named storms, the first an actual January hurricane. But over the past 17 years, nine have had at least one pre-season North Atlantic tropical cyclone.

We’re at the point where meteorologists are starting to talk seriously about extending the season, though the change hasn’t been formally proposed, yet. The arguments for and against are interesting in several different ways.

The argument for is fairly clear; if tropical cyclones often form in May, then shouldn’t the season start in May?

The arguments against are several:

  • We don’t know yet that May storms are actually typical. We could have a few unusual years in a row by chance, in which case we could A close-up of lots of people wading through calf-deep water. Only their legs are visible. They're wearing brightly-colored waterproof leg coverings.next have a decade or so of late first storms. In that case, an earlier start to the official season will be both silly and confusing.
  • It’s possible that May storms are typical, and have always been typical, we just didn’t notice most of them until we started tracking storms using satellites. The early storms we see these days tend to be weak and of short duration, and they don’t often make landfall, meaning that there could have been lots of similar May and even April storms in the past that nobody knew about.  The point of having a hurricane season has never been to include all months when tropical cyclones can happen–nobody is proposing extending the season to include January and December. The point is to include the months when these storms are likely to become problems. Maybe May storms aren’t usually problems.
  • If we changed the hurricane season, someone might think climate change is real.

More on that last point shortly.

Climate Politics?

In an article about Tropical Storm Arthur and other early storms, the Florida Sun Sentinel recently quoted a meteorologist as saying he could understand not wanting to change the season “because you’d suddenly get all these existential political arguments about oh they’re just doing that because of climate change or something.”

A Closer Look at Cons

At first glance, that quote about not changing hurricane season dates really does sound climate-denial-ish, and in fact I don’t know that it isn’t meant that way. I can believe there are those who don’t want to change the season because they don’t want to appear to believe in climate change. But I don’t know that this meteorologist meant it that way–and that’s why I’m not including his name here. You can find his name in two seconds by clicking on the link to the article, but it’s possible the article takes his words out of context.

Climate change is real, but it’s difficult to demonstrate that fact using hurricane data alone.

Tropical cyclone records are being studied, but the problem is the data are “noisy.” That is, there are so many variations that are not related to the greenhouse effect that it’s hard to spot the variations that are….Some of the noise in tropical cyclone data is the natural variability in storminess from year to year. Normally scientists can tune out such noise by looking at a large enough dataset. The basic procedure is to let random variations cancel themselves out–years with a lot of hurricanes are balanced by years with very few, if you look at enough years. What variation doesn’t get cancelled out is actually the climate changing.

But with tropical cyclones that standard procedure doesn’t work very well because there are problems with the data:

  • We don’t have good records of tropical cyclones before the Industrial Revolution. Scientists only started realizing that some large storms are spirals around 1820. Modern weather forecasting based on networks of weather stations didn’t begin until the 1860’s and most of the technology used to monitor hurricanes was only invented in the 20th century.  It’s hard to do a before-and-after comparison if you have no “before” shot.
  • The United States has been conducting aerial reconnaissance on hurricanes for decades, but since similar flights into typhoons have stopped, the data on storms in different parts of the world are not directly comparable.  That makes it hard to really get a global picture.
  • A lot of research on tropical cyclones is done by satellite, especially in the Pacific, but satellites are a relatively new technology so, again, we don’t have a good picture of how storms change over time.
  • Which information we get about which storm is a little random. For example, getting a measurement of a storm’s highest winds at landfall depends on getting the right instrumentation into the right part of the storm at the right time. For obvious reasons, that doesn’t always happen.
  • The conventions on how researchers analyze data and how they make estimates can change, subtly but definitely changing the numbers they record.

Scientists can and do work around these limitations, but they can’t make the limitations vanish.

And while it seems like a no-brainer that a warmer world will have more tropical cyclones, hot water is not the only requirement for storm formation; certain atmospheric conditions are also necessary, and some models show the frequency of these conditions–and thus the frequency of tropical cyclones–holding steady or even decreasing.

So while climate change is real, it’s far from clear that increased pre-season storm activity is related–or even happening at all. Whatever’s happening with early tropical storms might have nothing to do with climate change and much more to do with figuring out which rules-of-thumb are useful for disaster preparedness. And it’s easy to imagine even scientists who fully support climate action being irritated by having their work misinterpreted by climate activists.

But….

A photo of a hurricane taken from low Earth orbit, probably from the International Space Station. The image looks as though it were upside-down, because the Earth occupies the upper part of the image while the blackness of space is visible at the bottom. Most of the image is dominated by the Earth, and the storm covers all of the visible part of the Earth, a large enough view that the curve of the Earth is noticeable. The eye is very large and well-defined. The storm must be enormous and very powerful. This is not Tropical Storm Arthur, either, it's just an impressive picture of a tropical cyclone.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

But regardless of what that one un-named meteorologist meant when quoted by the Sun-Sentinel, some of the articles I’ve been finding on early tropical cyclones seem a bit disingenuous, being focused on the idea that the links between climate change and tropical cyclones is unclear and anyway these storms are usually quite weak and barely tropical in structure at all.

“Weak” and “barely tropical” don’t actually mean much, for one thing.

Weak, in a tropical cyclone, generally means it doesn’t have very high maximum sustained wind speeds. Arthur’s winds, for example, never exceeded 74 MPH, so it never counted as a hurricane. But wind speed is not as important as we might assume; most of the death and destruction in these storms is caused by flooding, not by wind. So the fact that pre-season storms rarely develop windspeeds over 74 MPH doesn’t tell us much. I want to know how big they are, how much rain they carry, and how slowly they move–all information not provided by most reports. Even tropical characteristics are not necessary for a storm to be dangerous. Nor’easters, which are non-tropical cyclones, can be as destructive as hurricanes because they can cause as much flooding, and their more moderate winds can cover a very large area. So I don’t know what “barely tropical” means, but it’s not comforting.

Finally, the connection between tropical cyclones and climate change is no longer as mysterious as it seemed when I wrote my posts on the subject back in 2014. Yes, the data of the past are still noisy, but new research methods are starting to give us a much clearer picture, and the picture isn’t pretty. No, we still don’t know whether early-season storms are, in general, a sign of climate change, Arthur particularly developed in unusually warm water. That is, the storm didn’t occur in typical-May conditions that we just didn’t know could produce tropical cyclones, nor was it the result of unusual atmospheric conditions that might have occurred irrespective of water temperatures. We had a tropical storm in May because ocean temperatures more closely resembled those of June.

It behooves us to think carefully, to not jump to conclusions, to not assume that a storm in May is a sign of the Apocalypse. But it also behooves us not to ignore the fact that climate change is making the ocean warmer–and it seems that whenever an unusual tropical cyclone occurs, unusual water is below it.

 


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A Climate for Reading: A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety

The cover image of the book being reviewed. The background color is yellow, and there is no illustration, only text. In the middle is a very large, red exclamation point with a small, red image of the Earth as the dot at the bottom of the exclamation point. The words "a field guide to" are written in all caps on the left side of the exclamation point, written vertically to be read bottom to top. On the right side, written to be read top to bottom, are the words "climate anxiety." Below, in smaller, black, capital letters is the secondary title, "How to keep your cool on a warming planet" and below that, in similar bed red lettering is the author's name with a red asterisk on either side. The rest of the image is just plain yellow.I sometimes use the blog to talk about the issues and moods and emotional challenges that now and again interfere with my good intentions as a climate activist. I write those posts because on those days I lack the energy to write of much else, but I also write them because I don’t believe I’m alone in having them, and I don’t want you to feel alone, either.

Then, some months ago, I set out to learn how to better deal with myself and to that end purchased two books on climate anxiety. To share what I learned with you, I posted my review of one of those books, Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change, shortly thereafter. Now it’s the turn of the second book.

A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet, by Sarah Jaquette Ray.

I had wanted very much to like this book, as it seemed to promise something I need, or at least needed at the time. And in fact it lacks the specific shortcomings I flagged for Emotional Resiliency, which is targeted towards a readership of specialists and suffers from a combination of naivete and subtle racism. In contrast, Sarah Jaquette Ray speaks to a more general readership (mostly younger adults, but close enough) and seems much more “woke.” Unfortunately, her presentation doesn’t quite work for me.

Maybe it will work for someone else.

Description and Synopsis

This Field Guide is not actually a field guide, not in the common sense of the world. Perhaps a book aimed at identifying various forms of climate anxiety-induced problem using their “field marks” would be interesting and valuable—you could look up your particular version of ineffectiveness and learn its name, its psychological cause, and what to do about it. But this isn’t that book. In direct contradiction to the author’s stated intention (on page 14), it’s not about identifying anything and can’t be used to look anything up. Instead, it’s an extended essay on emotional resiliency for climate activists, and it’s full of friendly advice.

To be clear, an extended essay full of advice is a fine thing for a book to be, it just needs a different title.

The target reader is a Millennial, or possibly one of the even younger people just now entering, or about to enter, adulthood. These are the people the author calls “the climate generation,” since they grew up hearing news of environmental destruction in a way earlier generations did not (though that’s not quite true: Gen X grew up with environmental doom as well, we just also grew up expecting to die in a nuclear war). The driving impetus of the book was the author’s realization that many of her students were literally incapable of imagining a world they wanted to live in. They had grown up so inundated with disaster warnings that they could think in no other terms. It’s hard to keep fighting if you don’t know what you’re fighting for.

The aim of the book is to teach young people how to think positively so as to become effective climate activists for the long term. There are sections on self-care, on effective communication, and on building coalitions with people who disagree on important things. Each chapter has a distinct focus, and each ends with a short, bulleted list summarizing action tips readers can take to feel and do better in ways that count.

But….

While the book has no clearly-definable errors in either approach or execution, I personally found little of value in it. I did not warm to it at any point.

For example, a recurring theme was that of keeping the focus on the positive, both as a matter of personal mental health and as a means of more effectively engaging others. Pay attention to success stories. Remember to enjoy the world while fighting for it. Imagine, and yearn towards, a sustainable future, rather than only fearing and trying to avoid its opposite. All good advice. In fact, my awareness of these principles is why I wrote a whole novel set in a post-fossil-fuel future painted in believable but glowing colors. As I said in my introduction, we already know life could end up being awful; we need to know that it could also end up being wonderful. If we believe the future could be good, we may become more assertive about going out to meet it.

So why is it that when Ray says the same thing I grow restive, even rebellious? Something about her tone strikes me as polyanna-sh, even compromising.

Perhaps it’s that she persistently put too much emphasis on avoiding the negative (despite her plea, early in the book, to accept pain and discomfort as part of life) and not enough on discerning what makes something “negative” in an unhelpful sense, as opposed to simply difficult yet important.

Perhaps it’s that she commits two rhetorical faults that most people seem to find no fault with but that persistently drive me to distraction.

First, she ignores the existence of the anti-environmental movement. As I’ve discussed before, climate denial as such is the deliberate creation of people who either know climate change is real or who simply do not care whether it is or not—they want to prevent climate action that could hurt their personal interests. That doesn’t mean there has been no genuine skepticism, no un-forced errors in science education or environmental education, no serious cultural divides with good people and valid concerns on all sides; all of the above is quite real and quite important. But to pretend that poor communication is all we’re dealing with is as foolish as handing someone a towel when they’re still in the shower.

The second problem is related to the first, and it is the habit, by Ray and others, of treating existing levels of public environmental interest as good news all by itself. Yes, a majority of Americans believe climate change is real and want climate action. Yes, there are lots of heartening anecdotes of good work being done. But all that was true four years ago, too, when this nation elected Donald Trump, a man who had made getting out of the Paris Climate Accords a campaign promise. It’s not that the existing environmental movement means nothing; clearly we’re in better shape than we would be if it did not exist. It’s that the movement isn’t getting traction where it counts—something is greasing the road. If you try something and don’t succeed, the fact that you’re still trying the same thing is not, all by itself, good news.

Tell me your plan for turning the shower off, and then I’ll feel good about your supply of towels. Until then, your cheerful plan to keep handing towels to somebody still being showered on has rather a disheartening effect.

Finally, there is one piece of advice the author offers that I consider plain wrong—although it’s almost right. This is where she tells readers to let go of the need for measurable results, to believe that anything they do, no matter how small or seemingly irrelevant, matters. No, it doesn’t. Some acts, like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, don’t matter. Some acts are well-intentioned but counter-productive, even destructive. Measuring results is a good way to check your methods, to see if you are doing what you need to be doing.

Now, it’s true that not all results can be measured, and not all forms of service are clearly definable. Rearranging the deck chairs on a doomed ship is pointless, but playing Nearer my God to Thee on that same doomed deck is not. I have a friend whose says his service to the world consists principally of going for walks by himself. I believe him, and I am grateful to him for that service. But even though I can’t personally judge what might help save the world, it doesn’t follow that anything and everything does.

The author is trying to make a true and subtle point, here; she doesn’t quite make it.

To Recommend or Not to Recommend

I can’t recommend A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety to anyone with my taste in books. Its presentation is not effective for me, and much of its advice is stuff I already know. However, not everyone has my taste in books, and not everyone should.

If the source of your paralyzing anxiety is indeed too much doom and gloom, if you’re seriously considering suicide to save the planet from yourself, or if you don’t understand how serious dedication to the planet wouldn’t lead to suicide, you need to read this book. It offers a needed corrective, a reminder to move—quickly!–in a different, more joyful, and more life-affirming direction.

I just wish it also offered practical tips on coping with the grief, anger, and fear the author herself says not to avoid.


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Real Plagues

No, not COVID-19 this time–I’ll write about it again next week. This time I want to talk about locusts. I’ve been hearing news reports of locust swarms in Africa for some weeks, but the reports are perfunctory, without detail or context. Here in America those insect-caused disasters seem very far away. Locusts themselves seem somewhat mythical, familiar from Bible stories but not otherwise, and I’m guessing a lot of people have no clear idea of what locusts are (cicadas are sometimes called locusts, but they’re not even closely related).

And yet locusts are important to understand, especially because they are yet one more facet of climate change.

Locusts

A close-up shot of a pink, yellow, and black grasshopper. While I do not know whether this grasshopper is a locust, but some locust species do have similar colors. The backgound is green, blue, and out of focus, just a vague blur.

Photo by Bradley Feller on Unsplash

What are locusts? Locusts are grasshoppers.

All locusts are grasshoppers, but not all grasshoppers are locusts. In fact, it could be argued that not all locusts are locusts.

Locusts vs. Grasshoppers

Grasshoppers are generally solitary herbivores. Adults can fly, and males sing just as crickets do (though not, in my experience, as musically). Unlike, say, butterflies, grasshoppers don’t have three distinct life stages, larva, pupa, and adult. Instead, the young (called nymphs) look almost like small, wingless adults. They become gradually more adult-like as they grow, until the final molt gives them functional wings and the power to breed. There are grasshopper species all over the world.

Some grasshopper species have an option for a second lifestyle–not that the shift appears to be under conscious control. When conditions become crowded, they change, adopting behavior patterns that make their large populations an asset rather than a liability. They start crowding together voluntarily, moving as a swarm, often covering huge distances. They eat more, and as adults they lay more eggs. They can also change physically, to the point that they were initially thought to be separate species from their solitary counterparts. They are still herbivorous, but the problem is they eat everything edible and then move on to eat everything edible somewhere else. These alternative grasshoppers are locusts.

Whether the word “locust” properly applies to only the gregarious, migratory version or to any individual of a species capable of making the shift is unclear to me. I’ll use it the first way, since it makes sentences such as the following easier to construct: many species of grasshopper in many different (generally arid) parts of the world (including North America, though our species is now extinct) can become locusts.

The distinction between locust-forming and non-locust-forming grasshoppers is not clear-cut. While some grasshoppers can undergo extreme physical and behavioral changes, while others change behaviorally but not physically, or have less-extreme behavioral changes, but are still called locusts. There are also grasshopper species that form loose swarms under some circumstances but do not migrate and are not called locusts.

The point is that some grasshoppers have a kind of biochemical switch that causes them to become living natural disasters to a greater or lesser degree.

Locusts and Climate Change

The particular biochemical switch that makes the right sort of grasshopper become a locust involves the neurotransmitter, serotonin, and it is flipped by repeated physical contact. Essentially, when some grasshopper species crowd together so tightly that they regularly bump into each other, they become locusts–the switch can take as little as a few hours. So, what (other than experimental scientists) crowds grasshoppers together?

It turns out, extreme weather does.

A very wet period allows the grasshoppers to reproduce very fast, but when the wet period is followed by drought, the grasshoppers must crowd together around the shrinking sources of food and water. Grasshoppers in such a situation might well die in huge numbers when the food runs out–worse, since they would all lay eggs in the same place, their young would face extreme competition for food, and the drier areas abandoned during the drought would be left grasshopperless for who knows how long. The locust response allows the insects to escape the trap. As locusts, they can take maximum advantage of limited food while scattering eggs over a very wide area.

So a rapid alternation between unusually wet conditions and unusually dry conditions makes a locust swarm. And we know that such alternation between extremes is precisely what we can expect from climate change.

It’s Not So Simple, of Course

The picture I’ve painted so far implies that locusts are more or less part of the same story wherever and whenever the occur, a simple phenomenon. Of course, simple explanations of living things are almost always wrong–at best, such simple ideas serve as an accessible introduction, a place to start learning, but the danger is always that they will mislead.

Locusts vary.

They vary not only in their degree of locust-hood, as already noted, but also in their behavior and dietary needs. And factors other than rainfall variations have an impact on both whether grasshoppers transform and how they behave after they do, at least for some species. In one Mongolian species, for example, protein-deficient grass, often caused by over-grazing by domestic animals, plays a role in triggering locust outbreaks. How this mechanism relates to the rainfall variation/over-crowding trigger I have not learned, but land management practices could be a factor for other locust species, too. In fact, some species, notably one in Senegal, were not known to locust (yes, I just coined a new verb!) at all until recent decades, but now do so regularly. Presumably, they could locust the whole time, but just did it so rarely that nobody noticed, which is still a radical shift in a species’ behavior. The change is thought to be related to shifts in land management practices.

Whatever the trigger is, because locus swarms can travel so widely, they become a regional issue even if the conditions that triggered the swarm are localized.

Another variable piece of the puzzle is that humans are not passive before locust swarms. Because swarms can cause regional crop failures and therefore deep economic problems and even mass starvation, locusts are treated as dangerous pests when they enter agricultural areas, and are often met with aggressive, well-organized pesticide use. The impacts of these poisons on creatures other than locusts aren’t clear and could be significant, but a more immediate point is that the severity of locust outbreaks doesn’t just depend on whether weather and other factors trigger the locust response, but also on whether the humans in the region have the political and economic wherewithal to beat the swarms back. War, poverty, and other disasters make locust plagues more likely because they impair the human ability to fight back.

I suspect that locust swarms, like wildfires, have results that can be judged “good” by humans who like to judge things, and that these outbreaks are one of the “pieces” Aldo Leopold referred to when he famously said “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the pieces.” But exactly what locusts do ecologically, other than starve humans, is not yet clear to me, and I’m not sure whether it’s clear to anyone.

So while my brief introduction to locusts appears accurate as far as it goes and will hopefully serve as a beginning point for learning, I hope the reader remembers there is a lot more to the topic.

Today’s Plague

The locust outbreak currently in the news is devastating East Africa. It is the second (and much worse) wave of the worst such event in 70 years. It’s not just one swarm but many, with new swarms forming and moving out across the continent regularly. At the same time, both travel restrictions related to COVID-19 and, in some parts of the region, civil war, are making rapid, coordinated response with pesticides difficult to impossible. And many people in the region are already struggling and can’t afford to lose their crops right now. The insects are eating everything.

It’s immediate cause appears to be the two cyclones that hit the East African coast in 2018 and 2018, followed by more unusually heavy rains in March of this year, all producing a massive grasshopper population boom–no drought seems to be involved, but the cyclones do have a climate change link. Cyclones, which are the same thing as hurricanes, the name simply varies from one region to another, are rare along Africa’s east coast, but they (and other massive rainstorms) become more common there during the Indian Ocean diapole, a short-term climate variation somewhat similar to the El Niño/La Niña cycle, and which is also responsible for terrible droughts in Australia. And the Indian Ocean diapole is being made much more frequent and more intense by climate change.

The Point?

The point is not “everything’s awful, everybody panic!” Everything is not awful, and panic seldom helps. The point is that what we do locally matters regionally, even globally. Climate action, or even more careful land management (which is often part of climate action), over here translates directly into fewer people dying in disasters over there. We have the ability to make a real difference for each other, for better or worse. We get to choose.

Also, when a lot of people on the other side of the planet are having a huge problem, it’s important to try to understand what they’re going through. That’s just part of being human.