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Cicadas cause unusual disturbance, but experts say swarms are not a major concern

The billions of Brood X cicadas that swarm the east and parts of the Midwest have caused several unusual disruptions over the past week, including the grounding of a White House press plane, a car crash in Ohio and even an appearance on weather radar. But other than a few scattered examples of cicada devastation, the country is not experiencing widespread slowdowns from breeding insects, experts said.

Journalists scheduled to cover President Joe Biden’s first overseas trip were delayed six hours after their charter plane at Dulles International Airport suffered mechanical problems caused by cicadas on Tuesday.

Delta Air Lines said in a statement that the charter flight was delayed Tuesday evening because of the “presence of periodic cicadas” in the auxiliary power unit, or small turbine engine, which rendered the engine unusable. Delta crews dispatched a replacement plane and crew to perform the flight, which departed after 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, about six hours late, the statement said.

A spokesperson said the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority was not aware of delays caused by cicadas on any other commercial or charter flights to Dulles.

If such an incident could happen at Dulles, it could happen at other airports, said Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot who is a communications strategist for flight tracking website FlightAware, adding that she always expected the impact of cicadas on travel to be “very minimal.”

But insects and other animals have been responsible for major accidents in the past, including the 1996 Dominican Republic chartered plane crash that killed nearly 200 people on board after a nest of insects blocked a pitot tube, she said.

It is not uncommon for large swarms of insects to cause mechanical problems. In a 2010 stink bug epidemic that affected several mid-Atlantic states, a farmer in Maryland reported that invasive insects were clogging part of a soybean harvester, causing it to overheat and ignite. said Doug Pfeiffer, fruit entomologist at Virginia. Technology.

The shell of a Brood X cicada on a tree on the North Lawn of the White House on May 25.Carolyn Kaster / AP

“This is to be expected,” Pfeiffer said. “Insects in sufficient numbers can certainly cause mechanical problems.”

In some cases, it is not necessarily the insects that can cause the disturbance, but rather people’s reactions to them.

“A lot of people are just too scared of bugs so if you fly out the window they can panic and not be careful driving,” Pfeiffer said. “There is an emotional overreaction, in addition to some real problems that could arise when there are very large numbers of insects.

Cincinnati police, for example, said Monday that a cicada walked through an open window and hit a driver in the face, causing the person to crash into a pole.

It is estimated that billions of cicadas will emerge during their month-long mating ritual. In some areas, cicada populations have been so large that swarms have appeared – at least in part – on weather radars. Over the weekend, the National Weather Service’s office in Baltimore and Washington, DC, tweeted a photo of radar images showing the Washington metro area shrouded in what looked like fuzzy blanket.

“You may have recently noticed a lot of blurring (low reflectivity values) on our radar. The Hydrometeor classification algorithm shows that much of it is biological in nature. Our guess? It’s probably the #cicadas,” officials of the National Weather Service. tweeted on Saturday.

Chris Strong, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Baltimore and Washington, said: “It is certainly unusual to see the low-end reflectivity on our radar from the cicadas that are out there. It has been in the background in especially since it really warmed up last week, so that’s pretty much a ubiquitous thing that we can see right now. “

And while insects can sometimes “trick the radar” into indicating that there may be a little more precipitation than there actually is, overall their effect is “not very impactful” , did he declare.

Kathryn Prociv, meteorologist for NBC News, said that “one of the highest concentrations of locations where cicadas are currently found is currently at the same location as this radar site.”

She said the location of the site, combined with factors such as the hot and humid atmosphere, could contribute to the cicadas being detected by radar.

“It’s like the perfect cicada storm,” she said.

Prociv said it was important to note that what appeared on radar probably weren’t all cicadas – it could have included taller flying insects or the high moisture content in the air, among others.

Prociv said the cicadas were “completely harmless” to the radar site and its ability to predict.

“If thunderstorms and rain do occur, we can obviously recover them despite the crowding of the cicadas,” she said. “They’re not going to make us miss a storm on the radar.”

May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, was skeptical that cicadas could fly high enough and in groups large enough to be detectable by radar. Cicadas are not known to travel great distances like migratory insects do, and they usually stay relatively close to the ground.

And although cicadas emerge en masse from the basement, they usually don’t move in huge packs, Berenbaum said.

“They don’t swarm the same way bees swarm,” she said. “And they’re not built for long-haul flights. They just have to go tree-to-tree, so they don’t usually fly above 500 feet. At that distance, they’re literally under the radar. “

Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, said it was possible that the period of colder, rainy days across much of the Midwest over Memorial Day weekend pushed the cicadas to be more active higher in the canopy of trees, where they sought shelter from the elements.

“Cicadas tend to take shelter from the rain – they actually crawl under leaves and under branches,” he said. “But then when the sun comes back they get active and loud pretty quickly. And that’s a lot of the warming we had over the weekend.”

Kritsky said that because the National Weather Service’s radar images overlap with where the cicadas emerged, it’s reasonable to assume that the blurry spots include the Brood X swarms.

While the emergence of billions of insects can be a nightmarish scenario for some, cicada researchers are delighted with the attention this year’s event is attracting, especially compared to 17 years ago, when Brood X cicadas dug a tunnel from the basement.

“The last time Brood X appeared, we didn’t have an iPhone,” said Kritsky, who released an app in 2019 called Cicada Safari, which allows citizen scientists to report cicada sightings. “Now we all walk around with small computers in our pockets and we can share videos, photos and sound. It really helps us fill in some of those missing pieces of science. “

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