Sunday, 21 May 2017

As cicadas emerge four years early, scientists wonder if climate change is providing a nudge

 May 18, 2017 by Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

Cicadas overwhelm tree branches across the mid-Atlantic once every 17 years, like clockwork. But something - some suspect climate change - could be sounding their alarm clocks four years early. 

In recent days, the red-eyed, nugget-shaped insects have been spotted crawling out from beneath trees from Northern Virginia to Bel Air, Md., in large - though not overwhelming - numbers.

The phenomenon is confusing entomologists who weren't expecting to see many of the screeching insects in the region until 2021.

Small numbers of cicadas can sometimes grow fast enough to emerge four years early. But there have been a thousand reports of cicadas up and down the Interstate 95 corridor in just the past two days, more than scientists expected.

Cicada lovers are wondering if the numerous reports are simply a sign of how easy the internet has made it to track the periodic rite of spring - or if climate change is nudging more cicadas to venture above ground early.

Scientists are asking residents to help them figure it out, using online reporting tools that didn't exist during earlier cicada cycles. They're collecting reports of cicada activity, which could continue for the next month, and also memories of how those conditions compare to past cicada seasons.

The data could help scientists investigate what is, for now, just a hypothesis: That longer growing seasons linked to climate change may have shortened the life cycle of many 17-year cicadas, and could end up creating new cycles of timekeeping broods.

"You could see many more individuals coming out four years early, and eventually those could become so numerous that they're self-reproducing," said Chris Simon, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut.

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