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Supercomputer in Kenya Helps Track Emerging Locust Swarms for Extermination

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Luis Monzon
Luis Monzon
Journalist. Reach me at Luis@ITNewsAfrica.com

Just recently Kenya suffered the worst locust outbreak in 70 years. With fears of a second wave of the winged scourge blotting the sky over farmer’s crops, scientists are turning to a new tracking programme in the hopes of preventing another surge, reports The Guardian.

The UN has described the great locust swarm that bred with reckless abandon across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia as “extremely alarming”. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that a second hatch of the insects was imminent and that it could threaten the food security of 25 million people across the region as the cropping season comes into fruition.

Kenneth Mwangi, a satellite information scientist working for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development Climate Predictions and Applications Centre (IADCPAC) in Nairobi, says that researchers are running a supercomputer model to be able to predict breeding areas that may have been missed by ground search teams. These missed areas could be the epicentre of a new swarm of not sprayed with insecticide.

“The model will be able to tell us the areas in which hoppers are emerging,” says Mwangi. “We will also get ground information. These areas can become a source of an upsurge or a new generation of hoppers.” Adding that these breeding areas can become very difficult and expensive to control if given enough time.

The focus for this initiative is to stop hoppers, the nymph stage of the locust life cycle, from becoming adult locusts in order to halt another cycle of infestation.

“We want to avoid that. We want to advise governments early before an upsurge happens,” states Mwangi.

The supercomputer that the centre is using has successfully been able to forecast the movement of swarms using data such as wind speed as well as wind direction, temperature and humidity in previous times. The model has achieved 90% accuracy in forecasting the location of future swarms as well, says Mwangi.

Now researchers are imputing data like soil moisture and vegetation cover to help predictions of where eggs have been laid and are likely to hatch and thrive. These predictions create data about where African governments need to focus their spraying efforts, helping to cull the hoppers before the true swarm can awaken.

So far, the researchers have been able to catch where the swarms are going to be, and have since been able to tell the government of Uganda that locusts are expected to cross their countryside. In response, Uganda mobilized its army to combat the locusts. Mwangi says the researchers must now focus on where the swarms are going to emerge.

“Governments are working, spraying in areas that hoppers have been reported. So now, the governments might be able to catch areas they have missed and haven’t been reported.”

Hopefully, Mwangi adds, the worst-case scenario can be avoided if current interventions continue to succeed. The Kenyan government is still on high alert.

Across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya billions of locusts have already devastated crops, further weakening the already fragile food security of the countries. Further swarms have also been spotted in Uganda, Tanzania as well as the DRC and South Sudan.

Effective control of enormous swarms is extremely expensive and time-consuming. Upsurges usually cost around $60 million to control, though larger swarms can cost exponentially more. The last big locust surge across 23 African countries took two years to control and involved 2 or 3 generations of the gluttonous insects.

Now is the most “critical period” for control of the desert locusts, because any eggs laid in the past month coincide with the cropping season.

Abubakr Salih Babiker, a climate scientist at Nairobi’s IADCPAC says that “the risk for us is that this is the beginning of a new growing season, from Somalia and Uganda, and if the desert locusts are not controlled it can be a huge crisis in food security of the whole region”.

Edited by Luis Monzon

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