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From Climate Change to Locusts Jacob Greenlee

ark clouds hung on the horizon and rapidly approached; farmers quickly realized this was no ordinary storm. In early February 2020, many countries in the Horn of Africa got an unwelcome surprise: these clouds would reveal themselves to be dense swarms of locusts, billions upon billions in strength. The swarms that invaded large swathes of Eastern Africa were the worst in 70 years. The surge of insects was not merely an act of nature; it was the consequence of human-induced climate change, serving an alarming reminder of just how connected we are to our natural surroundings.

Desert locusts are infamous for their staggering numbers and insatiable appetite. They reproduce quickly and profusely to compensate for their short lifespan of about three months. In just two weeks, locusts transition from eggs to a flightless "hopper" stage with only jumping as a means of movement. locusts then develop for the next forty days to become fully mature adults capable of flying up to 150 kilometers a day with the right wind conditions. Once mature, female locusts can individually lay up to 70 eggs, with populations growing on average 20 times larger than the previous generation. Swarms of the insects reached lengths of 60 kilometers long by 40 kilometers wide in Kenya, capable of reaching numbers up to 80 million per square kilometer and devouring food that could supply 35,000 people per day. The immense volume of insects that began to hit the Horn of Africa in February 2020 was unprecedented even by locust standards. Their growth was spurred by an intriguing, but worrying process initiated by climate change.

Locust reproduction thrives in bouts of heavy rainfall and subsequent vegetation growth, which is exactly what the Horn of Africa got for nearly eighteen months before the invasion. Cyclones Mekunu and Luban both struck the Arabian peninsula in 2018, inciting initial locust growth from their downpours. Subsequently, massive swarms of locusts crossed over the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden into Ethiopia and Somalia, where their growth was further exacerbated by unusually heavy rain in the autumn of 2019, ending with Cyclone Pawan in December. By this time, the hordes of insects were already well-established in the Horn of Africa and began their consumption in earnest by February of the following year. The literally perfect storm of heavy rainfall and multiple cyclones is unusual for the region; years can pass without the region seeing a single cyclone. The massive uptick in cyclone occurrences and rainfall volume is tied to the Indian Ocean Dipole, a system of winds that have recently been upset by warming sea temperatures, a direct result of climate change caused by carbon emissions. If carbon emissions continue to rise extreme weather from the Indian Ocean Dipole could increase by three times by the end of the century, and at least double by the next decade if temperatures rise by even one and a half degrees celsius.

The consequences of the locust invasion were serious. Kenya and Uganda engaged in total warfare with the locusts; both countries recruited hundreds to deploy pesticides and even use military-grade equipment to stop locusts from ravaging their crops. The extent of the need for pesticides was so extreme that Kenya ran out of chemicals. The threat of famine loomed over 19 million people in the region as their already unstable food situation worsened. By March of 2021, the sheer amount of locusts began to decline as pesticide operations persisted and intense rains abated. It was only in February 2022, exactly two years after its beginning, that the locust surge was declared over and under control. Nevertheless, the fight against the locust invasion reflects the disastrous consequences of climate change. If climate change continues to worsen, the vulnerable region of the Horn of Africa may see the return of these unwanted visitors as well as more extreme weather events. Recognizing the underappreciated risks of global warming may finally spur action to fight it at its root cause, carbon emissions, rather than its symptoms.


1. Burke, Jason. "Food fears grow as swarms of locusts reach Uganda and Tanzania." The Guardian. February 10, 2020.

2. "Desert Locust upsurge (2019–2021)." Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. 2022.

3. "East Africa's huge locust outbreak spreads to Congo." NBC News. February 25, 2020.

4. "Locust invasion in East Africa." Reuters. February 27, 2020.

5. Stone, Madeliene. "A plague of locusts has descended on East Africa. Climate change may be to blame." National Geographic. February 14, 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic... Picture source:


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