May 23, 2013 at 2:31 PM ET
Hordes of winged cicadas are coming out and turning up the music for their biggest party in 17 years, stretching from North Carolina through Virginia to New York — but experts aren't yet sure just how big the party will get.
Billions of the bugs are climbing out from the ground as the spring weather warms up and soil temperatures reach the magic turning point of 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). The warm-up has just reached the proper level in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., according to Sutron's closely watched temperature tracker.
That assessment is confirmed by on-the-ground eyewitness reports registered on Magicicada.org and Radiolab's Cicada Tracker. John Cooley, an expert on cicadas at the University of Connecticut, took in the full cicada buzz this week during a field trip to Lynchburg, Va. "We've had some good, rip-roaring choruses," he told NBC News.
These Brood II cicadas spend most of their 17-year life cycle underground, patiently nourishing themselves on fluids from plant roots, and then arise for a frantic weeks-long cycle of crawling, flying, mating, egg-laying and dying. When the mating party really gets going, the thrum of the cicadas' call can get as loud as 90 decibels.
"It'll be as loud as a rock concert," University of Maryland entomologist Michael Raupp told NBC News, "but hey, these are teenagers. they've been underground for 17 years. They're going to get in trees, they're going to sing."
Throngs of the inch-long insects have been sighted as far north as New Jersey and New York's Staten Island — and eventually, the wave will make its way up to Cooley's neck of the woods in Connecticut. But for now, the prime territory for the party is still in Virginia, and not so much in New York.
"It's really not quite the real thing up there, but it's starting," Cooley said.
Scientists believe that periodical cicadas (sometimes erroneously labeled as "locusts") took up their pattern of long-term dormancy, followed by a brief blast of above-ground mayhem, as an evolutionary survival strategy. The masses of bugs can overwhelm their predators with sheer numbers, ensuring that they can lay enough eggs for the next generation before they end up as a crunchy carpet underfoot.
The big question for Cooley and other entomologists is whether environmental changes over the past 17 years — ranging from climate change to ground pollution and urban sprawl — will affect the breadth and scale of this year's emergence. "We're interested in those situations where these emergencies are not as extensive or as dense as they were 17 years ago," Cooley said.
Regardless of how big it gets, this party won't get too out of hand — if you're willing to endure the noise and the bother. Cicadas are mostly harmless to humans and other species. And in fact, they can be rather tasty. The cooked bugs have been compared to shrimp, or asparagus, or popcorn, or even peanut butter, depending on how they're prepared. The Washington Post's Kevin Ambrose recently conducted his own gastronomical experiment, and concluded that cicadas taste mostly like small tidbits of "mushy, squishy asparagus."
"It wasn't bad, but I don't want to try it again," he wrote.
Have you had cicadas? Have you heard cicadas? Feel free to add your own field reports as comments below — and sample these video tributes to the cicadas:
Previously, on 'Swarmageddon' watch:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.