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Biblical plague of locusts is swarming over Italian farmlands. Could it happen in the US?

By John Roach, AccuWeather staff writer
June 16, 2019, 6:59:43 PM EDT

The Italian island of Sardinia is dealing with its worst swarm of locusts in 70 years as the insects destroy crops, infest houses and devastate animal grazing pastures covering 6,200 acres, according to Reuters.

“I have never seen anything like it in 53 years of life,” breeder Luigi Puggioni told the Italian newspaper La Nuova.

Weather patterns played a role in Sardinia, as droughts in 2017 and heavy rains in 2018 created “the ideal climate for locusts to emerge from fallow land and then move to cultivated fields to eat,” Michele Arbau from the Italian agricultural association Coldiretti told Reuters.

However, the Sardinian swarm that evokes references to the Biblical plague in the Book of Exodus -- “the locusts swarmed across the land and settled over the entire territory of Egypt” -- is not as unusual as it may seem.

In 2013, a massive swarm of locusts roughly 30 million strong hit Egypt and the Middle East, and in 2004, an infestation in Africa and the Middle East cost $400 million as well as harvest losses of $2.5 billion, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

“It’s a summer thing during the growing season,” said AccuWeather senior meteorologist Jason Nicholls.

So, could a locust infestation hit the U.S.? Actually, it already has, Nicholls pointed out.

Rocky Mountain locust swarms periodically hit U.S. crop fields during the 1800s to devastating effect. Within the short span of hours, locust swarms could blow in and devour everything a farmer had -- crops, fabric, clothing and more, according to a Farm Progress story.

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In fact, in 1875, the largest locust cloud in world history was recorded over the Midwest, according to Jeffrey Lockwood’s book “Locust.” It covered 198,000 square miles -- larger than all of California -- and was estimated to contain several trillion locusts and perhaps weighed several million tons.

However, by 1902, the Rocky Mountain locust had gone extinct, with scientists estimating that Western farmers had begun cultivating the farmland that was home to Rocky Mountain locust eggs.

As for a locust swarm in present-day U.S., AccuWeather’s Nicholls said, “This wouldn’t happen today in America."

“There are modern means of controlling it -- pesticides and so much technology,” he said.

And even though Sardinia is actually on the same latitudinal line that goes through the heart of Corn Belt states such as Illinois, Indiana and Ohio (40.078072), “the climate in Sardinia is different than the climate in the Midwest,” Nicholls said. “You can’t equate the climates even though they’re at the same latitude because dry air fron Africa keeps the region desert-dry in the summer while winds from the Atlantic and nearby Mediterranean Sea bring rains in the late fall, winter and early spring seasons."

He added, “But there’s no doubt, locusts were definitely a big problem for the U.S. in the 1800s.”

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