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Swarmageddon: Cicadas Helping Crowdsource Citizen Science

Arduino Technology
Swarmageddon: Cicadas Helping Crowdsource Citizen Science

(Cicada image courtesy Flickr user anoldent)

I live in the northeast United States. Specifically in Queens, NYC. While the city of five boroughs has a fair share of parks and outdoor space, it is more commonly known for its concrete jungle of subway tunnels and towering skyscrapers. However for the past month it’s been impossible to not hear the buzz about the impending emergence of cicadas that are likely already emerging as I type this, given the warmer weather outside.

The air is warmer yes, and once it reaches 64°F eight inches below ground these 17-years-young adult cicadas will emerge from their subterranean digs. Yes, you heard me right: this brood has been living underground for seventeen years, since 1996. Underground, they survived Y2K like the rest of us, and now they’re ready to swarm the region en masse. While there are over a dozen broods of Magicicada, with one species emerging annually somewhere in North America most years, this species is expected to hatch in the billions. And not simply a billion, or two, but as many as a billion per square mile, all the way from North Carolina to upstate New York. That’s a lot of cicadas.

With soil temperature in mind, the folks at Radiolab, in conjunction with New York City’s public radio station WNYC, are enlisting “armchair scientists, lovers of nature and DIY makers” to crowdsource data associated with this critter’s emergence. Multiple “cicada-tracking events” will be held where participants build homemade soil thermometers. The first of these was two nights ago, held at the Brooklyn Brewery facility in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Over 100 people attended from the tri-state region to assemble an ATmega328p-pu-based circuit. While some said it was their first encounter with a breadboard, they also realized how easy and fun making circuits can be.

These are some images from the build event:


The full build instructions call for using an Arduino Uno, so anyone can build a soil thermometer. Those instructions can be found on the Cicada Tracker project website. A picture of that build is below, with the lit up LEDs corresponding to a specific indoor temperature. The maps below also show historical data related to the emergence of Brood II cicadas and the current incoming data being collected by the Cicada Tracker project.


Geographic range of Brood II cicadas. Image from Wikipedia.
Geographic range of Brood II cicadas. Image from Wikipedia.

The Cicada Tracker project is a brilliant example of turning ordinary citizens and nature lovers into makers, using the phenomenon of cicadas to introduce people to the Arduino and basic circuit-building.

And below is a video of the LED thermometer in operation.

[wpvideo v3uXtWxx w=620]

At the beginning when the video snaps into focus, the changing LEDs indicates the temperature in the room shifting from 66°F to 67°F. Then, I pinched the thermistor with two fingers. You can see the LEDs then indicate 90°F and finally 96°F before the video ends.

Read more on NPR & Huffington Post.

10 thoughts on “Swarmageddon: Cicadas Helping Crowdsource Citizen Science

  1. Craig says:

    These things emerged in the Wisconsin/Illinois area a couple of years back. When driving through Lake Geneva I pulled over because I thought my serpentine belt was screeching. But it was not coming from under the hood. I shut off the engine and heard the din of millions of these things around me. Dead ones littered the ground. Bugs the size of your thumb with bright red eyes. Bugs don’t creep me out but these ones do!

    1. Nick Normal says:

      Often confused with locusts, thankfully these buggers don’t bite, sting, or damage crops. But they are louder than an engine!

  2. aliking says:

    The crowd-sourcing aspect of this is great, and this is an interesting project, but the device is ridiculously over-engineered. The suggestion that people build an 80 dollar soil thermometer puts a real bar to getting people involved. Which is probably why results are so sparse on that map – I assume they are individuals?

    1. Nick Normal says:

      Hi Aliking,
      I couldn’t agree more about the cost of the build being high, however I already had all these components laying around. Also at the multiple build-events users are making circuits with the Arduino compatible ATmega328, and those kits cost around $8. Also, they gave them away, for free. To over 100 people. That’s over $800 in supplies, free. Also they got a good 50% of the crowd to build an electronic circuit in less than 2 hours for the first time in their lives. You just have to want to socialize with other nerdy people. I think they’re doing wonderful work.

  3. Steve says:

    Interesting, but the last major hatch in this area was in 2004, so I’m not entirely sure this is the year… I was driving down I95, headed for DC, and could hear the ‘song’ on the highway, at road speed, with the windows up.

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I'm an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

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