Friday, May 31, 2024

Cicada Mania

 Newspapers and other media around the US recently have been filled with discussions of an exceptional insect—cicadas. Broods or groups of some cicadas are called periodical cicadas. Their unique life cycles occur only in the Eastern United States in various geographic regions even though 3000 species of cicadas occur worldwide. Entomologists have determined that the US broods are composed of seven different species, morphologically similar but not identical. Each brood lives underground for exactly 13 years or exactly 17 years. When one or the other brood completes its life cycle, they break out of the ground to serenade citizens with a cacophonous din for a few weeks before depositing eggs on tiny tree twigs. After the eggs drop to the ground tiny nymphs at once begin their underground life, burrowing underground for either 13 or 17 years. It is clear this trait is genetically programmed in the insects, but scientists cannot explain how genetics produces their precisely timed behavior. How do these cicadas time their behavior so precisely?

This year two broods in Illinois are emerging at the same time. This event is termed a co-emergence. They have been named brood XIX, 13-year cicadas, and brood XIII, 17-year cicadas. Geographically brood XIX is found in southern Illinois and brood XIII is primarily located in northern Illinois. Entomologists predicted this year’s co-emergence for many years. The two specific broods geographically meet each other similar to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, mostly in the state of Illinois. The 13 year and 17 year broods have not emerged in the same year in Illinois since 1803. This has generated considerable interest and excitement.

When my wife and I lived in Galena, IL, we experienced the din of Brood XIII cicadas in 2007. I recall many tiny dime-size holes in paths in our woods after they emerged from their underground lair after 17 years of subterranean feeding on sap from tree roots. Brood XIII cicadas are emerging once again in many Illinois localities in 2024.  As we write, brood XIII is noisily emerging in eastern IL at the home of our daughter and her family. Dying 17 year insects and their spent exoskeletons are everywhere. These insects are members of brood XIII.

My personal experience with periodical cicadas reverts to 1962 when our family lived in New Jersey. Brood II, a 17-year species, was prevalent in New Jersey and several adjacent states. I recall transporting a group of young Sunday School students from their class picnic to experience the loud singing of cicadas in a nearby wooded area. In 1979, 17 years later, our 3-year old son was frightened when several cicadas alighted on him during a family outing at a nearby park. In 1996 Brad returned from college during the next appearance of Brood II. Together, we journeyed over to the same park to experience the loud singing of the same brood.

As a young person I also had experience with a different species of cicada called “dog day” cicadas, so-called because they emerged every summer during hot days known as “dog days.” These cicadas were similar in their structure but somewhat larger than periodical cicadas. They have greenish or olive colored bodies with large, black eyes. In contrast, periodical cicadas have delicate orange wing veins, dark bodies, and brilliant red eyes. Dog day cicadas do not create the loud noise of periodical cicadas. They sing individually instead of in a collective buzzing. Young and old alike may suffer from entomophobia until they subjectively perceive the physical beauty and behavioral uniqueness of these animals. They may even transition to entomophiles!

There are multiple reasons to exult in the natural world. The beauty and complexity of living things ranks at the top of the list. Periodical cicadas possess the longest known insect life cycle. Our God created countless fascinating characteristics of genetically programmed traits into living things, including the behavioral ability of periodical cicadas to discern time periods of 13 or 17 years. 





Saturday, May 18, 2024

In the Wake of Natural Disasters

Media reports stress harmful outcomes of natural weather events and other powerful physical phenomena in our dynamic planetary environment. Many are related to the four fundamental forces by which our universe is governed and shaped. 

“The four fundamental forces act upon us every day, whether we realize it or not. From playing basketball, to launching a rocket into space, to sticking a magnet on your refrigerator - all the forces that all of us experience every day can be whittled down to a critical quartet: Gravity, the weak force, electromagnetism, and the strong force. These forces govern everything that happens in the universe.” (Ben Biggs and Jeremy Rehm…”The Four Fundamental Forces of Nature,”, 12/23/21)

Modern news commentators report on disastrous forces of tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, floods, blizzards, thunderstorms, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches, and forest fires. The public desires news concerning unusual and spectacular incidents, as well as destructive and tragic events. Reports about serene and pleasant physical events often do not inspire the same degree of public attention. A physical scientist may be fascinated by information about fundamental forces, but laypeople are more concerned about tragic effects triggered by those forces. However, there is a side effect to many so-called weather and natural disasters—a beneficial side effect.

As this post is being composed Planet Earth is in the throes of a solar storm event. We are being affected by solar flares—magnetic storms on our life-giving sun. They are called coronal mass ejections (CME) of hot magnetic gas. Such storms are not physically harmful to Earth residents because our planet’s atmosphere shields us from harmful effects but our GPS technology and other modes of communication may be adversely affected. The benefit of this solar magnetic storm may be our ability to see aurora borealis—northern lights. We are able to see the beauty of divine creation in a unique manner.

Returning to other commonly observed weather events mentioned earlier, we do not minimize the possibility of tragedy from a natural event. The OT Book of Job records a poignant example of environmental hazards on Planet Earth. Job Ch. 1 describes a great wind, probably a tornado, which took the lives of his ten children. Christians must acknowledge the existence of suffering, not only from environmental hazards, but also for the undeserved suffering of Jesus Christ as He gave His life to redeem humanity.

There are several side effects to consider concerning undesirable physical events.        

Hurricanes redistribute heat and moisture, sometimes providing relief from drought. Some storms move sediment from bays to marshes, revitalizing nutrients. Periodic wet/dry cycles may be more beneficial than changeless, pleasant weather. Blizzards with heavy snow cover may prevent deep freezing of soil and provide insulation from severe cold damage to roots and bulbs. Soil moisture even in winter must be conserved. 

Thunderstorms, however frightening, provide beneficial moisture and provide nitrogen fixation in the atmosphere. Nitrogen is a diatomic element consisting of two atoms chemically bonded. In this state, atmospheric nitrogen is not useful to plants. Lightning in thunderstorms breaks diatomic nitrogen apart so it may join with oxygen to form nitrogen oxides (N2O). Nitrates (NO3) form when nitrogen oxide dissolves in water droplets. This process is known as atmospheric nitrogen fixation. Plants need nitrogen as a nutrient for healthy growth. Veggies, fruits, and meats are proteins rich in nitrogen. We encourage readers to thank God for lightning which ultimately helps fertilize life-sustaining plants. We also caution residents to stay safe during the storm! Eight million lightning bolts strike our planet each day producing 13,000 tons of nitrate fertilizer. 

Volcanoes may result in tragedy, but volcanoes give warnings of future eruptions. Geologically, volcanic material on Earth’s surface provide rich soil nutrients. Eighty percent of Earth’s surface originated in volcanic events. Hawaii’s rich volcanic soil is geologically very recent.

Earthquakes may cause horrific damage but government mandated building codes minimize earthquake damage to a significant degree. A study of earthquakes in terms of their long-term causes and effects, convection currents and mineral recycling, may highlight the truth of divinely created fine-tuning and intelligent design.

We have endeavored to highlight positive effects of several dynamic planetary events most often perceived as tragic. When God created all things (the heavens and the earth) in the beginning (Genesis 1:1), he also created an “operating system” for our habitable planet. Scientists have recognized laws of nature, physical laws which govern how our Earth’s physical system operates. The physical laws obey a suite of physical constants such as  the law of gravitation, the constant speed of light, and the mass of subatomic particles. Many other physical constants have been identified. The subject of physical constants is esoteric—understandable by only a few advanced scientists. 

As we examine Planet Earth’s weather, climate, and geological phenomena, we are struck with awe and wonder at the divine genius of our Creator. He is the Divine Author of our predictable laws of nature. We link this past post for those who wish to study the topic of divine creativity in more depth: