Using satellites to forecast plagues

Locusts news

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

Desert Locusts are grasshoppers that can form large swarms and pose a major threat to agricultural production, livelihoods and food security.

Scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Desert Locust experts at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predict this new technology will help to increase the warning time for locust outbreaks by up to two months.

Under the project, data from satellites such as ESA’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity mission (SMOS) is used to monitor the conditions that can lead to swarming locusts, such as soil moisture and green vegetation. Swarming occurs when a period of drought is followed by good rains and rapid vegetation growth.

Keith Cressman, FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer, says: “By bringing our expertise together with ESA’s satellite capabilities, we can significantly improve timely and accurate forecasting. Longer warning periods give countries more time to act swiftly to control a potential outbreak and prevent massive food losses.”

The new technology will look at soil moisture to indicate how much water is available for vegetation growth and favourable locust breeding conditions, and can therefore predict the presence of locusts two to three months in advance.

In the past, satellite-based locust forecasts were derived from information on green vegetation, meaning the favourable conditions for locust swarms were already present and only allowed for a warning period of one month.

More than eight million people were affected in West Africa during the 2003-2005 plague in which cereal crops were wiped out and up to 90 percent of legumes and pasture were destroyed. It took nearly $600 million (about R3.8 billion) and 13 million litres of pesticide to bring it under control.

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