Every day in East Africa, food for entire communities is being destroyed by desert locust swarms. Recent extreme droughts and/or flooding have left over 13 million people in this region already facing food insecurity. Crop damage from locusts threatens to place another 20 million people on the verge of crisis.
A small (1 square km) swarm consumes in a day what would have fed 35,000 people. But the locust swarms now darkening the skies over farmers’ fields are the size of cities. In northeastern Kenya, one swarm was measured at 60 km long and 40 km wide, big enough to cover more than half of New York’s Long Island. Locusts are placing food supplies at risk in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns that this locust plague could result in a large-scale humanitarian disaster.
World leaders must take compassionate responsibility for those affected. At the same time, we owe it to every life at risk from future locust swarms to prevent devastating events like this from becoming the new normal. To do so, we need to trace the chain of cause and effect to the Arctic Ocean, and protect it now.
Why are there so many locusts? Locusts breed best in moist soil with access to green vegetation. More rain means more locusts. And last fall, the rainy season on the Arabian Peninsula, where the locusts are breeding, was among the wettest in 40 years. It will be June of this year before the weather is expected to become dry again. Between this February and June, if left unchecked, the already-staggering locust populations could increase 500 times over.
Why did so much rain fall on the Arabian Peninsula? Cyclonic storms on the Indian Ocean, which used to be rare, bring moisture inland to the Arabian Peninsula. Where the peninsula used to see just one or two cyclones (if any) make landfall every year, eight cyclones brought their payload of rain into the deserts of Oman in 2019. Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer of the FAO, recently remarked, “We know that cyclones are the originators of swarms.” The fuel for these storms? Warm air at the ocean surface.
What’s warming the Indian Ocean? Our world’s overall ocean circulation has changed so much that a 2015 study reported that 70 percent of all heat taken up by global oceans during the past decade was being stored in the Indian Ocean. In the past 50 years, the Indian Ocean has warmed even faster than the rest of the world’s oceans—as the ice of the Arctic Ocean, which regulates global temperatures and steering currents, has vanished. Our world’s weather patterns are inherently interconnected. As such, they are inescapably affected by the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice. The oldest and thickest Arctic sea ice—that has helped keep global weather balanced and ocean temperatures cool for millennia—is 95% gone. The melting ice in the most remote reaches of the Arctic Ocean, and the billions of billions of locusts bearing down on the Horn of Africa, are interconnected aspects of the same global humanitarian and ecological crisis.
The urgency to immediately address the locust swarms and protect crops cannot be overstated. Yet at the same time, we cannot afford for it to overshadow the urgency to stop the deadly underlying pattern that is turning the Indian Ocean into a cyclone breeding ground and the Arabian Peninsula into a locust feeding frenzy. 14,000 tons of Arctic ice melt every second, placing us all at risk.
There is a direct and effective response on the desk of every world leader: the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary, which prevents destruction of the Arctic sea ice due to exploitation, and compels a global shift to renewable energy. Compassion asks us to stand now as one Earth family, realize MAPS, and protect our brothers and sisters from the devastation of these massive locust swarms in future.