Wooded areas up and down the U.S. East Coast are breaking into a deafening buzz. After 17 years spent alone underground, billions of red-eyed cicadas are emerging for their final act: to meet a partner, breed and die.
Upon emerging, the insects blanket the trees and ground -- with the males filling the air with buzzing and whistling to attract females. But that sound also brings tourists and scientists to study this rare event. With air temperatures and surface soils warming from climate change, scientists are also keen to learn how the creatures are responding.
Temperatures affect when cicadas emerge and their underground growth. Scientists witnessed large numbers of 17-year cicadas surface years ahead of schedule in 2017, which entomologists suspect could be related to global warming.
"The biggest questions are: Is climate change changing their life cycles? And then, how does it change them?" said Chris Simon, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut who has studied the insects for more than three decades.
Left: A newly emerged adult cicada dries its wings on a tree in College Park. Right: A newly emerged cicada stands on a tree at Rock Creek park.
LONG EVOLUTION A CLIMATE 'HANDICAP'
America's periodical cicadas are no strangers to climate change.
"We think the big swings in climate contributed to the evolution of the seven species that we have now," said John Lill, a cicada researcher and chair of George Washington University's biology department.
There is clear evidence that cicadas were pushed south during the last glaciation event, he said, then expanded their ranges northward again as the Earth warmed.
But today's rapid temperature shifts are "totally different" than the gradual climate shifts of the past, he said. Like with other creatures, "the concern is that it's happening so rapidly that species aren't going to be able to evolve adaptations to keep up with it."
That may be especially true for cicadas.
"These guys are going to be handicapped in a very real sense in their ability to respond to climate change, because of the fact that they have such long generation times," Lill said. "You can only evolve as fast as you can have new generations."
PHOTO EDITING MARIKA KOCHIASHVILI; TEXT EDITING KATY DAIGLE AND LISA SHUMAKER; LAYOUT JULIA DALRYMPLE