Journalists use temperature monitoring to better understand cicadas
Wednesday, Mar 20th 2013

Scientific researchers understand that in order to come to a definitive conclusion on any particular matter, a large amount of verifiable information needs to be collected and analyzed. While scientists over the years have developed theories and hunches based on observation, those hypotheses remain unproven unless quality data can back up the claim.

According to the Nieman Journalism Lab, a project run by Harvard University's Nieman Foundation, one such claim has been that cicadas have an internal temperature sensor that tells them when to emerge from the ground. Cicadas are unique in that once every 17 years, the insects pop out of the ground en masse in a swarm. Although the bugs do not bite or otherwise harm humans, their regular emergence is often considered a nuisance considering that cicadas inundate their environments and make a lot of noise. Scientific conventional wisdom held that the insects only emerge when soil temperatures reach approximately 64 degrees Fahrenheit. However  this hypothesis remains unproven.

The main reasons why researchers are not certain about what triggers the swarm to arise is twofold. For one, cicadas only emerge once every 17 years, meaning that scientists must wait a long time before being able to even begin to test out the hypothesis. Plus, cicadas are only around for a short period when they do finally come out, which even further limits research efforts. Another major issue is that the cicada natural habitat is incredibly vast - according to the Nieman Journalism Lab, cicadas along the Eastern Seaboard can be spotted from Virginia to Connecticut. In order for scientists to come to a definite conclusion, data would need to be collected and analyzed across the insect's entire home range.

"While the periodic emergences are hard to miss because of the noise and the overwhelming numbers, it is hard to predict where and how many will actually come out because of habitat degradation," public radio station WNYC said in a recent blog post.

How temperature monitoring and the masses can solve this dilemma
To finally figure out how warm the soil really needs to be, a team of journalists at WNYC is hoping to arm as many people as possible with temperature monitoring equipment. The purpose of the Cicada Tracker project is to install a temperature sensor in as many locations as possible. That way, when the insects do finally emerge, the team will have enough data from across the cicada's population zone to accurately determine if the previous hypothesis about ground temperatures is correct or not.

"WNYC for a long time has been a leader with experimenting with crowdsourcing and data news. This is almost like experimenting with crowd hardware hacking," WNYC's John Keefe, who is spearheading the project, said to Nieman Journalism Lab. "We're trying to go into this arena of independent sensors built and run by a crowd to collect information that might not otherwise be available. We're creating our own data set."

One potential issue with this project is that the WNYC team is encouraging those interested in participating to build their own sensors. However, the data this temperature monitoring equipment would gather could potentially be inaccurate. Typically, researchers opt for professional environmental monitoring solutions to ensure the success of their efforts.