New satellite data used to give long-lead warning of locust swarms

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food and agriculture organization Agriculture

Information from satellites is being used in a new way to predict favourable conditions for swarms of desert locusts, as part of an early warning collaboration by scientists. 

The technology calls on expertise from the European Space Agency (ESA) and locust experts at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. It is expected to help increase the warning time for locust outbreaks by up to two months. 

Under the project, data from satellites is used to monitor the conditions that can lead to swarming locusts, such as soil moisture and green vegetation. 

At the FAO, we have a decades-long track record of forecasting plagues and working closely with countries at greatest risk to implement control measures​,” said Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer. 

Swarming occurs when a period of drought is followed by good rains and rapid vegetation growth. Soil moisture indicates favourable locust breeding conditions, and can therefore predict the presence of locusts 2-3 months in advance. 

Desert locusts are grasshoppers that can form large swarms and pose a major threat to agricultural production, livelihoods and food security. They are found primarily in the Sahara, across the Arabian Peninsula and into India. 

Though usually harmless, swarms can migrate across long distances and cause widespread crop damage. A one square kilometre-sized swarm contains about 40m locusts, which eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people. 

More than 8m people were affected in a 2003-05 plague in the Sahara, in which cereal crops were wiped out and up to 90% of legumes and pasture was destroyed. 

It took nearly US$600m and 13m litres of pesticide to bring it under control.

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