Miss the eclipse? No worries; more natural wonders coming

If you are feeling bad because you missed seeing first-hand the total solar eclipse last month, I’ve got good news for you. It’s not too late to catch what might be an even more rare and memorable natural wonder.

Later this spring, millions, perhaps billions, of cicadas will emerge from the ground, do their ritual cicada mating dance, make their ritual cicada mating noises, and then fall dead to the earth, but not before leaving billions of little cicada eggs in tree branches that will become billions of baby cicadas that will eventually fall to the ground, burrow into the soil where they will remain for either 13 or 17 years before re-emerging and repeating their bizarre little life cycle.

Why do cicadas follow that unusual pattern? The prevailing theory among bug scientists is that emerging en masse at long, staggered intervals is a tactic to overwhelm and confuse predators and enhance fertilization success. When I was in college, we referred to that kind of event as a “kegger.”

Many of the millions of cicadas emerging in the Southeast United States this spring burrowed underground in 2011 when President Obama was in office, and Taylor Swift was starting out on her second concert tour. Most cicada experts agree that neither Obama nor Swift had anything to do with the cicadas’ decision to move underground for 13 years, although, coincidentally, I know a number of people who are considering doing just that in order to escape the upcoming presidential election.

It turns out that 2024 is going to be a banner year for cicada aficionados. Not only are the 13-year cycle cicadas (known to insect nerds as the “13-year Brood XIX”) going to emerge in the Southeast, but a gang from the “17-year Brood XIII” will also emerge in Northern Illinois. Those two massive broods are likely to be joined by stragglers from other broods whose internal cicadian alarm clocks fail.

If you already have cicada-free travel plans this spring don’t despair. Four years from now another massive cicada emergence of the loud and notoriously fun-loving 17-year Brood XIV cicadas will occur in parts of the East Coast and Hawaii.

You’re probably wondering how cicadas know when their 13- or 17-year hibernation cycles are up. Cicada scientists have determined that cicada are able to measure the passing of a single year through annual changes in the growing cycles of the trees upon which they feed while in their dirt nap state. Cicadas feed on the xylem sap produced by their host trees. The sap changes in consistency and nutritional content depending on the tree.

Scientists have yet to discover how they keep track of how many years have passed, however. That question is likely to remain a mystery. The research necessary would be tedious and expensive and unlikely to lead to breakthroughs in other areas of more popular scientific interest, such as advances in artificial intelligence technology or less-nerdy 3-D video gaming goggles.

The mass spawning spectacle of cicadas is a mysterious natural phenomenon. Not surprisingly, it is also recognized as one of the Seven Biological Wonders of the World. The others are: the Aurora and Australis Borealises; total eclipses of the sun, moon or heart; major storms and tectonic events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis); bioluminescence in animals like fireflies and some jellyfish; the live birth of large animals (as someone who has seen two humans emerge from my wife’s body); and the mysterious green flash at sunset over the ocean, which until captured recently in photographs, was considered less a natural wonder and more a charming old tall tale about the existence of mythological creatures such as Bigfoot, snipes, abominable snowmen and moderate politicians.

Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper.