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.

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.

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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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