October 20, 1937 The Swarm

In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states. It was a rolling tide, the size of California and Maine, put together.

In the decade following 1932, children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder published a series of eight novels, a fictionalized autobiography based on the childhood experiences of a 19th century pioneer and settler family. Third in the series is the best known, Little House on the Prairie, the subject for a television series running from 1974 to ’83.

In her fourth book, Wilder tells a tale of grasshoppers, of a time when locusts wiped out a much-anticipated and badly needed wheat crop, laying so many eggs as to destroy all hope for the following year, as well.  On the Banks of Plum Creekpublished  this day in 1937, told the story of “Pa” having to walk three-hundred miles east to find work on farms, which had escaped the biblical plague.

There are something like 11,000 species of grasshoppers in the world, the familiar, plant munching insects of our summer fields.  They are vegetarian creatures with polyphagous feeding habits, meaning they’ll eat just about anything, given the need and the opportunity.

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Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus, photographed in 1870s, Minnesota

Usually a solitary creature, only a few species will become locusts, the “gregarious” phase of the insect’s life cycle characterized by swarming, migration, and accompanied by explosive growth in population.

Such swarms have been reported since the time of the Pharaoh. The two years in Wilder’s story, 1874 – ’75, are among the worst swarms on record for the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus.  

M. Spretus finds its home in the fertile valleys of the Rocky Mountains, but outbreaks of the insect have caused farm damage as far away as Maine during the period 1743–’56, and in Vermont during the administration of President George Washington.

When President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark off on the Corps of Discovery expedition, vast herds of American bison stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. Historians estimate 30 to 60 million of the creatures, each weighing up to 2,000 pounds and measuring twelve-feet long. A minimum of sixty billion pounds of biomass, needing something to eat.

The western artist George Catlin estimated that, by 1841, some two to three million of the creatures had been slaughtered for their hides. Bison populations came under increasing pressure as natives acquired horses and guns, but the real slaughter began with the Indian wars and “hunting by rail”, when every dead buffalo was seen as a dead Indian.  By the late 1880s, only a few hundred individuals remained alive, in Yellowstone National Park.

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A mountain of bison skulls

With the bison gone and a new wave of vegetation, there arose a new and very different multitude, come to feed on it.

During the 19th century, farming expanded westward into the grasshopper’s favored habitat, triggering massive outbreaks in their numbers.  Locust populations exploded to varying degrees in 1828, ’38, ’46, and ’55, affecting areas throughout the West and upper mid-west. Plagues visited Minnesota in 1856–’57 and again during the last year of the Civil War.  Nebraska suffered repeated infestations between 1856 and ’74.

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NPR reports in a 2020 segment about locusts in Africa, that such a swarm measuring one square kilometer, about a third of a square mile, can consume as much in a day, as would have fed 35,000 people.

Population blooms of two years are typical, as eggs laid in year one tend not to thrive as well as their parents.  At its height, farmers reported finding up to 150 egg cases per square inch, each containing 100 eggs or more.

In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states.  It was a rolling tide, the size of California and Maine, put together.

The numbers are so far outside of human experience, they are hard to get your head around. For a little perspective, a million seconds is about twelve days. A Billion seconds ago, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. A Trillion seconds ago, the oldest known clay object was fired to ceramic in the earliest oven.  It was 29,000, B.C.

“Albert’s Swarm”, the largest such assembly of organisms in recorded history, is estimated at 12½ Trillion individuals.

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It was a biological wildfire, a living blizzard that blotted out the sun, 12½ trillion insects each the size of a child’s finger, each driven to eat its own weight.  Every day.  All in, Albert’s Swarm is estimated to have weighed 27½ million tons.

As the continuous track of a bulldozer moves ever forward, the leading edge of the swarm would alight to rest and eat, only to pick up the rear, a few days later.  In this manner, the swarm would cover ten miles or so in a few weeks.

One farmer reported “a great white cloud, like a snowstorm, blocking out the sun like vapor“.  Even the sound was horrific, rising to a scream and rolling over the land like some evil tide, the whirring and rasping cacophony of billions of mandibles borne aloft to eat, almost literally, everything in sight. Native populations could and did, move.  For prairie settler and pioneer families, home was on the farm.

Check out what these things sound like. Video taken this year, in Ethiopia.

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes. Standing crops were the first to go and then the root vegetables: potatoes, carrots and turnips. They were devoured, right out of the ground. Throw a blanket over your garden to protect even that little bit, and they would eat the blanket. Fence posts, saddles, nothing was off limits.  These creatures would eat the wool, right off of the sheep.  At its worst, the ravenous horde was known to eat the clothes, right off of people’s backs.

Trains were literally stopped in their tracks on uphill stretches of rail, unable to gain traction for the grease of millions of tiny bodies, ground beneath their wheels.

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Farmers used gunpowder, fire and water, anything they could think of, to destroy what could only be seen as a plague of biblical proportion. They smeared them with “hopperdozers”, a plow-like device pulled behind horses, designed to knock jumping locusts into a pan of liquid poison or fuel, or even sucking them into vacuum cleaner-like contraptions.

It was like trying to turn the tide, with a shot glass.  

Missouri entomologist Charles Valentine Riley came up with a recipe to eat the damned things, seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried in butter. Some bought the recipe, but many felt they “would just as soon starve as eat those horrible creatures”.

In 1877, a Nebraska law required everyone between the ages of 16 and 60 to work at least two days eliminating locusts, or face a $10 fine. Missouri and other Great Plains states offered bounties: $1 a bushel for locusts gathered in March, 50¢ in April, 25¢ in May, and 10¢ in June.

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And then the locust went away, and no one is entirely certain, why.  It is theorized that plowing, irrigation and harrowing destroyed up to 150 egg cases per square inch, in the years between swarms. Great Plains settlers, particularly those alongside the Mississippi river, appear to have disrupted the natural life cycle.  Winter crops, particularly wheat, enabled farmers to “beat them to the punch”, putting away stockpiles of food before the pestilence reached the swarming phase.

Today, the Rocky Mountain Locust is extinct.  Several grasshopper species swarm as locusts on every continent in the world, save for North America and Antarctica.   The last living specimen of the Rocky Mountain Locust was seen in Canada, in 1902.

November 26, 1703 Into the Maelstrom

It’s hard to count the cost of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you, is gone.  Estimates of fatalities range from 8,000 to 15,000 killed.

The storm came in from the southwest on Wednesday evening, November 24, and stayed until December 2. On Friday the 26th, barometers read as low as 950 millibars in some areas, a reading so low as not to have been seen in living memory. Before it was over, the southern part of Great Britain had suffered one of the most destructive storms, in history.

In a time before meteorological science, such an event was understood to be the wrath of God.  And what a wrathful God, he was.  Any storm worthy of the name “Hurricane”- any storm, we’re not talking Katrina or Andrew here – expends the energy equivalent to 200 times the electrical generating capacity, of the entire planet.  We’re talking about 10,000 Hiroshimas here, usually spread out over time and place.  Not this one.  This one was concentrated, compacted into the heavily populated south of England, a place where the gray and feeble first light of dawn broke across the land, and “nobody could believe the hundredth part they saw“.

A155403.jpgBeginning in early November, a series of gales drove hundreds of ships up the Thames estuary, is search of shelter.  The “Perfect Hurricane” of 1703 arrived on November 24 (Old Style) and remained until December 2 with the worst of the storm on November 26-27.

Queen Anne sought shelter in the cellars of St. James’ Palace, while the lead roof blew off of Westminster Abbey.  More than 2,000 chimneys were toppled to the ground in London alone as were another 17,000, trees. In the Thames, 700 vessels of all sizes piled up like children’s toys.  Ship’s officers struggled to record an event, entirely outside of living memory.

“It was so severe, none of these poor captains had ever experienced it before, so they didn’t have any yardsticks to base the description on,” says Wheeler, who studied Royal Navy logbooks at length. “One gave up and just wrote ‘a most violent storm’ and left it at that, for sheer want of anything more he could say.”

At the Cathedral City at Wells, Bishop Richard Kidder was asleep with his wife next to him, when a toppling chimney killed them both in their bed.

A third of British Naval power was destroyed during this storm, the entire Channel squadron, gone.  Ships were driven as much as 15 miles inland, more than 1,500 sailors drowned.  Many vessels simply disappeared. Others washed up on the faraway shores of Denmark, and Norway.

Synoptic-summary-of-The-Great-Storm-of-December-1703-in-England-after-Lamb-and.pngThe most miraculous tale of survival was that of Thomas Atkins, a sailor aboard the HMS Mary. As Mary broke apart, Atkins watched as Rear Admiral Beaumont climbed aboard a piece of her quarter deck, only to be washed away.  Atkins himself was lifted high on a wave and deposited on the decks of another ship, the HMS Stirling Castle.  He was soon in the water again as Stirling Castle broke up and sank, only to thrown by yet another wave, this time landing in a small boat. Atkins alone survived the maelstrom, of the 269 men aboard HMS Mary.

Hundreds found themselves stranded on Goodwin Sands, a ten mile long sand bar, six miles off the coast of Kent. In a race against the incoming tide, a man named Thomas Powell organized the rescue of some 200.  More could have been saved, had the good citizens onshore stopped looting shipwrecks long enough to lend a hand.

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An engraving of the age depicts the disaster, on Goodwin Sands.

With “Robinson Crusoe” still sixteen years in the future, the famous author Daniel Defoe was at this time, but a minor poet and pamphleteer.  The writer was freshly out of prison in 1703, having served a sentence for criticizing the religious predilections, of High Church Anglicans. Hearing the collapse of brick chimneys, the Defoes and their six children sought refuge in their gardens but were soon driven inside, to “trust the will of Providence”. “Whatever the danger was within doors”, he said, “”twas worse without; the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within.”

The 75,000 words which followed are recognized by many as the first work of modern journalism, forming Daniel Defoe’s first book length work, “The Storm”.

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English engineer Henry Winstanley constructed the first Eddystone Lighthouse. He died with his creation in 1703, caught out while making repairs, by the cataclysm of 1703

Storms of great severity are not unheard of in southern England. In 1362, part of the Norwich Cathedral spire was blown down.  Severe gales were recorded in 1897, 1908 and 1943. The gales of 1953 and 1987 left more damage than any storm of the last century. At the time, the storm of 1703 was seen as the Wrath of God, visited upon Great Britain for the “crying sins of this nation”. The storm would remain the subject of sermons for the next 150 years.

It’s hard to count the cost of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you, is gone.  Estimates of fatalities range from 8,000 to 15,000 killed. The Reaper’s true account, is impossible to know.

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