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Image by Damien TUPINIER

Can swarming insects generate as much electricity as a storm cloud?

By Jasmine Biju

A group of researchers has concluded that swarming insects contribute to variations in atmospheric electricity, in relation to the density of the swarm.

 

The atmosphere is composed of many factors that contribute to electrical charges, which essentially determine the movement of aerosols. The attribution of the sources of atmospheric electricity is often to abiotic factors or natural and geological processes. However, researchers have proposed a new theory: biotic specimens can contribute to the variability of electric charges. Through various conductions, scientists have determined a correlation between swarm density and its corresponding impact on the electrostatic levels of the local environment.

 

Scientists have learned that the electrostatic variability induced by the cumulative charges carried by individual members of the swarm is comparable to that of variations caused by meteorological processes. It is a breakthrough in science, as this discovery has brought attention to an unexplored area of influences contributing to atmospheric electricity.

 

Atmospheric PG, or potential gradient, is the measurement of the difference in voltage from the Earth’s surface to a particular point above. It determines the variation in atmospheric charges, which is particularly useful for understanding prominent drivers of this variability such as various meteorological processes. It also helps us to understand the movement of other particularly relevant particles and biological organisms. PG at a regional scale is dictated by the flow of global electrical current, such as thunderstorms, while PG at a local scale is dictated by local electrical current, such as precipitation. While a variety of factors serve as numerous explanations for these variations of electrical charges, it fails to explain all the data that reflects said fluctuations.

 

Organisms that have a swarming behavior tend to inflict variations in local atmospheric electricity. As per reports, airborne insects carry a minuscule amount of electrical charge. Thus, in a larger swarm that is composed of many members, the culmination of charge is able to make a notable difference in the electrical charges of its environment, as shown by fluctuations in atmospheric PG. In other words, the aggregation of charges carried by individualmembers provides a source of electrical charge.

 

The purpose of the research conducted was to determine the correlation between the density of swarms and the resulting atmospheric PG. At a field station at the University of Bristol, School of Veterinary Sciences, Langford, United Kingdom, scientists used the typical swarming behavior demonstrated by honeybees in order to deduce its electrical impact, using an electric field monitor. It was concluded that the swarm density was ample in creating a difference in atmospheric electricity. Using a similar methodology, researchers then looked into locust swarms. In this study, it was concluded that these swarms had the potential of creating an atmospheric electrical difference comparable to that of meteorological events. Further research shows that this difference can exceed that of charge densities resulting from electrical storms and clouds.

 

This research provides a new outlook on the contributing factors to electrical variability in the atmosphere. The developments show that the aggregation of charges of swarming insects is indeed a source of this variability. Overall, these conclusions open up new doors to possibility. As this rationale is further scrutinised by the scientific community, we may come to learn that biogenic charge may not only pertain to insects but potentially even other organisms.

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