By Muhammad Atef | June 11, 2021

Swarms blamed for car accident and spotted on weather radar

“Cicada palooza” continues across the eastern United States, with swarms showing up on weather radar, and in one case, even being blamed for a car accident.

The recent heat could be playing a role. Dr. Jim Fredericks, the chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), told AccuWeather recently, “As daytime temperatures continue to rise, we should see an increase in adult cicada activity.”

And it’s been hot lately, not only across the Northeast, where many locations experienced the first heat wave of the season over the weekend, but also across some Southeastern states, where AccuWeather RealFeel® Temperatures reached well into the triple digits at the end of May.

A 17-year-old cicada bug sitting on a blade of grass that was taken in western N.C. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Cincinnati police blamed a cicada for causing a car crash in Ohio. In a post on Facebook this week, police reminded residents that every time cicadas emerge, several car crashes are attributed to their presence. Police explained that a young man drove through a large swarm and wrecked his car and warned people to roll up their windows while driving.

Police said a cicada flew “through an open window and struck him in the face, temporarily stunning him. He then crashed into a utility pole. While his car is likely totaled, his seatbelt and airbags saved him from serious injury,” police said. Photos shared on social media showed extensive damage to the front end of the black sedan.

In Virginia, the 17-year “Brood X” cicadas are hatching in such high numbers some experts say they’re being picked up by weather radar.

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service (NWS) office for Baltimore and Washington, D.C., tweeted two photos they believe show cicada swarms being picked up by weather radar over the weekend. They say the algorithm shows colors to be something biological.

“THIS is not rain, not ground clutter,” NBC meteorologist Lauryn Ricketts agreed in a post to Twitter Monday. “So likely CICADAS being picked up by the radar beam.”

And the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas were certainly hot over the weekend. The mercury rose above 90 degrees on both Saturday, when the radar image was captured, and Sunday.

Kyle Pallozzi, a Virginia-based meteorologist for the NWS, told Insider that when the cicadas are populous enough for weather radar to pick them up, meteorologists can discern the difference between weather events and insects due to the “Hydrometeor Classification Algorithm.”

The algorithm helps determine “the likelihood that a radar beam is picking up hail, rain, snow, something biological, or more.”

However, Howard Bernstein, from WUSA9 in Washington, D.C., doesn’t believe the activity depicted on weather radar was caused by cicadas. He said, “Cicadas generally only make it about 500 feet off the ground … That radar beam is too high for where the cicadas generally fly so it’s most likely not cicadas, in my opinion.” Berstein added, “While there could be some mixed in close to the radar beam, it’s probably birds or bats or some other biological entity than cicadas.”

Andrew Farnsworth, a Senior Research Associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, seems to agree with Bernstein that the cicadas are likely flying under the radar. He prefaced his remarks by saying that he’s neither an entomologist nor meteorologist, but, “cicadas are generally clumsy fliers that seem to spend most of their time close to the ground, far below radar coverage.”

He also pointed to cicadas’ wing anatomy, which he said doesn’t support high-altitude flight, as another reason he thinks the radar images do not depict cicadas.

Farnsworth had previously told AccuWeather it can be difficult to determine the difference between biological objects spotted on weather radar.

“It’s really challenging, it’s still an active area of research and it’s very, very difficult to do with absolute confidence. There’s a place of overlap where larger fast-flying insects and slow-flying birds start to be like, ‘Eh, I’m not really sure what that is.'”

Farnsworth said it’s much easier to tell birds and insects apart. “Generally, because of the wavelength,” he explained, “birds return such a stronger scatter to the radar that when birds are up there they dominate the pulse volumes.”

Farnsworth said putting together various pieces of the puzzle, be it weather radar or people on the ground making citizen reports to Birdcast (which uses weather surveillance radar to show live bird migration routes), experts can often figure out what the radar is showing.

“The combination of air speeds and especially speeds relative to the direction of the wind, anything not moving with the wind, not drifting with the wind has the potential to be a powered flyer. It’s either going to be a fast-flying insect, maybe a bat or a bird.”

An up-close look at a Brood X cicada in Georgia. (Photo/Reed Timmer)

Still, it’s not a perfect science. It’s an active area of research, so Farnsworth cautions there is room for error.

“Anybody that tells you that they can differentiate between or among those biological classes with 100% certainty — not possible,” he said.

Virginia, where the possible swarm was spotted on radar, is experiencing a lot of cicada activity this year. Two weeks ago, Dr. Michael Raupp, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, noted that the current emergence, which he previously described as a “cicada palooza,” was well underway across northern Virginia and Maryland.

So when will cicada chaos reach an end? Dr. Fredericks told AccuWeather that most adult Brood X cicada activity will end by July, but some, farther to the north, will still be able to hear the bugs as late as August.

Keep checking back on AccuWeather.com and stay tuned to the AccuWeather Network on DirecTV, Frontier, Spectrum, FuboTV, Philo, and Verizon Fios.





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