It sounds like an episode out of the X-Files or the Twilight Zone, but officials have determined mysterious radar signals in recent nights are turning out to be large swarms of grasshoppers flying high above north central New Mexico, setting off alarms at the National Weather Service station in Albuquerque over the last several nights.
"We knew we were seeing something other than precipitation because the particles radar was sensing were not uniform, they were a lot busier," reports Brent Wachter, a National Weather Service forecaster. "At first we really thought the radar system was broken and had our technician go out a couple of times to run tests."
When technicians couldn't find anything wrong with the system, NWS officials had to call senior radar specialists in Oklahoma City to report the problem.
"They told us they had seen this kind of thing before and asked if we had any kind of insect infestation in the area," he added.
After checking with the City of Albuquerque Environmental Department, NWS officials began to suspect they were seeing massive swarms of grasshoppers that have been plaguing the city over the last week.
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Officials report color radar screens came alive late at night over the past several nights and were registering massive green and yellow signals of activity at an altitude of around 1,000 feet.
"We have seen swarms of bats before and even picked up isolated swarms of cicadas, but we've never seen anything like this before," reported radar technicians.
Environmental Department officials aren't surprised at the discovery. They say heavy rains in late summer and again in the fall that were followed by a dry winter helped promote a "healthy hatching" of grasshopper eggs this year. With warmer temperatures in recent weeks and a robust wind, the grasshoppers tend to swarm in large numbers and, apparently are capable of reaching great heights.
City officials say grasshoppers have been reported in large numbers over the last two weeks and have invaded lawns and streets all across the Metro area, and have even been reported getting into homes and buildings across the city.
Cheryl Kent, an Extension Service horticulture specialist, says homeowners and nurseries are the most at risk, however, as grasshoppers can quickly defoliate shrubs and plants.
Charles Brown, United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (USDA-APHIS) policy manager for the Rangeland Grasshopper and Mormon Cricket Suppression Program, says in excessive outbreaks grasshoppers can pose a serious risk to rangeland grasses. But he is quick to note that officials are not expecting a large outbreak of grasshoppers this year.
A federal grasshopper survey is underway in New Mexico and he says he is not surprised to see sporadic swarms in some Western states this year because conditions are good in some areas for hatching eggs.
"The situation in Albuquerque seems to be affecting residents in and around the city, but at this time we don't feel there is any serious threat to Western rangeland. This appears to be more of an urban problem at this time," he said.
Brown says the USDA-APHIS forecast for grasshoppers this year calls for a number of localized outbreaks but nothing as serious as major outbreaks which have caused massive damage to rangeland in past years.
"We had a serious outbreak in the 1980s and have seen some serious but smaller outbreaks a few years back. We're not expecting anything on that scale this year, but we will continue surveying problem areas," Brown said.
Local officials in Albuquerque say it is not the first time they have seen large number of grasshoppers and they expect the problem will slowly diminish as summer weather heats up in the days and weeks ahead.