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Cicadas emerge four years earlier than anticipated in D.C. area

Cicadas emerge four years earlier than anticipated in D.C. area (ABC7)

It's an unusual sound of spring and summer, coming to a neighborhood near you.

Unusual because periodical cicadas generally appear every 13 or 17 years-- but not this year.

"We used to play with them, and do gross stuff," smiles Samantha Sachs. "I grew up actually with them. When they came out I was like seven or eight."

Sachs, a 24-year-old nurse living in Arlington, remembers when the cicadas last appeared in 2004. She became quite the collector.

"Like all the little shells, we used to gather them up and stuff," Sachs recalls. "I hope they don't come back like that."

The noisy little critters weren't supposed to emerge from underground until 2021, part of the typical 17-year cycle.

Something happened to accelerate that cycle to this year.

There are theories: global warming, natural competition, even the cicadas trying to avoid predators, but no one knows for sure.

"This is absolutely known only to mother nature and cicadas," says University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp. "Scientists are still trying to figure out what the mechanism is that underlies these four year accelerations."

Raupp says cicadas in the metro area began appearing earlier in the month, crawling out of underground burrows, where they feed for years on roots and trees.

After shedding their skins, the males noisily climb to the treetops, hoping to attract females, who lay their eggs there. Those eggs fall to the ground.

The tiny nymphs that emerge, repeat the cycle, by burrowing underground.

"You're born, you procreate, and you die," muses Scott Long, who's lived in his South Arlington neighborhood for 17 years, exactly the length of time periodical cicadas normally live underground. "That's pretty much the cycle of life, isn't it?"

Long says he remembers 2004 all too well.

"I remember the last one, there's tons of them," he says. "Ate the tops of trees, and people came up with interesting recipes, and the dogs ate them."

"This is what we call an acceleration of Brood X," Raupp says. "Remember, Brood X is the big brood. It was last seen in 2004. This is simply the vanguard of the main event in 2021."

No one really knows how large the population a population this acceleration will generate.

Raupp says he has a neighbor who has 1,000 cicadas in a tree.

But others living nearby have not seen a single one.

"They come out in a continuous cycle," Long says. "There's multiple cycles."

Then there is the noise factor.

Put enough periodical cicadas in a small area, and you will have some pretty heavy volume.

"These guys are going to get up to 85, to as much as 100 decibels," Raupp says. "That's like a jet airplane going by a loud lawnmower."

He says the cicadas who've emerged will begin to die out in July.

Just a drop in the bucket, he says, compared to what's coming in 2021.

"It's going to be nuts, it's going to be just like in 2004," he says. "There will be simply billions and trillions of cicadas here in the DMV in 2021."


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