Monday, July 19, 2021

Cicadas, Climate Change, and Hope

They’ve gone quiet now, their voices stilled.  Here and there, a few husks remain, clinging to brick out of the reach of the wind-driven rain.   Though we’ve moved on, it was good to hear the cicadas singing again.

As a DC Metro townie, born and raised inside the Beltway, that recent event was my third time hearing the warblings of the Brood X choir.  I was a senior in high school during the 1987 emergence.  In 2004, I was the dad of two busy little preschool boys.  And as that long remembered Star Trek phaser/War of the Worlds keening filled the air a third time this year, I’ve become a middle aged empty nester.

As the cicadas bumbled about in the treetops, shouting out their songs of love, the sound was a welcome thing.  Like a visit from an old acquaintance, or a journey to a house where you once lived for a few years as a child.  I remembered my youth, and those little boys, now grown.  I watched Brood X clamber out of the earth and whir heavily through the air, and I felt nothing but supportive.  I was rooting for them.  You go, little guys!

They seemed to need all the help they could get.

When that first advance wave came tumbling out, though, they didn’t do well.  After we’d gotten a big burst of summer heat to wake them, things got oddly cold, and they were visibly weakened.  As cold blooded creatures, they didn’t have the energy to molt.  Or their wings failed to form properly in the cool of grey, sunless days, leaving hundreds with stunted, useless appendages.  Their carcasses littered the ground and splattered in the roads and sidewalks.  It warmed, for a while, but then it got cold again, bitter rain that silenced their song for days.

It stirred a worry, one that rises from a broader anxiety that many of us feel these days.  Our world is warming, the temperature inching upwards, and the ecosystem is struggling to adapt.  The signs of that change comes daily, as storms and floods, fires and droughts shout for our attention. For many species of flora and fauna, this abrupt shift will prove overwhelming.   

Looking at the bizarre, miraculous, alien seventeen-year cicada, so simple and easily broken, a fear rose.  Might find this new harsher world we’ve created destroy them?  Every species that falls is a loss, of course, but these bumbling bugs are so peculiar.  So endearing.  So ancient.

Cicadas come from a long bloodline.  They seem prehistoric because they are prehistoric, with a lineage that goes back deep into the history of life on earth.  The primal ancestors of cicadas go back to the heart of the Permian era, around 275 million years ago, well before the dinosaurs, when the mammals from which we sprang didn’t yet even exist. 

As good as cicadas seemed to be at dying in the mouths of our dogs and under the wheels of our cars, they also come from a stock that survived the greatest mass extinction in our little planet’s history.   251 million years ago, the Permian/Triassic extinction event was likely triggered by catastrophic volcanic eruptions, eruptions which ignited massive reserves of coal.  The atmosphere filled with gigatons of carbon, global temperatures soared, seas became acidic, and the majority of species died.  It was far worse than the event that killed the dinosaurs.  Among scientists, it’s known colloquially as The Great Dying.

While the vast majority of insect species died off, the ancestors of the cicada did not.  Cicadas may be fragile individually, but together?  Together they’re resilient.  If their ancestors could make it through The Great Dying, they can probably handle the extinction event we’ve inflicted on our world.

Seventeen years from now, I’ll be almost 70.  It might be the last time I’ll hear the cicada song that now fills the air.  The world will be warmer and likely still on a warming arc, but the cicadas give me some hope.  If those bumbling, booping, endearingly awkward critters can survive and adapt, it seems very possible that we homo sapiens can too.  Because even though we may feel small and fragile individually in the face of our changing world, we together can make it through. 

That’s how that song sounded in my ears.   It was a song of hope for the future.