Swarming Locusts Confound Meteorologists

Jun 11, 2014

The high reflectivity returns showing up on the National Weather Service radar in Albuquerque are mutated grasshoppers.
Credit National Weather Service

6/11/14 Editor's note: We are conducting follow-up research that may change the facts presented in this story.  Look for a related story soon.

About a week ago, meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque noticed a spike of reflectivity on their radar equipment. The machine sends out pulses of electromagnetic energy, which bounce off whatever happens to be in the atmosphere. Usually, that's rain or hail.  

But the skies were pretty clear, and as the breeze blew east and then west, the pattern of reflectivity changed—literally with the winds.

They checked their equipment to see if it was malfunctioning, but everything was working properly. 

Then, as Kerry Jones with the National Weather Service explains, someone in the office commented offhand on the epic number of grasshoppers around this year and wondered if, by any chance, that was causing the odd reflectivity.

"We were a little confused," Jones explained, "because grasshoppers are typically clumsy. They don't get to great heights in the atmosphere. They don't fly great distances and so forth ,and you know, we were picking these things up 500, 1,000, 2,000 feet aboveground. And then we did some more research and learned that grasshoppers in certain situations morph into locusts!"

According to entomologists, when the density of grasshoppers becomes extreme, and crosses a certain threshold, the creatures release serotonin, which causes them to mutate into locusts. 

And locusts, unlike grasshoppers, have wings that extend well beyond their bodies, which allows them to swarm high into the sky. Jones says that's what their radar is picking up, and outside experts have told them we can expect the infestation to stick around for another 2-3 weeks.