December 24, 2015

Leiningen Versus The Ants With Molten Aluminum: How Much Molten Aluminum Would It Take To Exterminate 90% of All Fire Ants In The World?

A guest article by Joseph Friedlander

Warning: This article is a frank exercise in science fiction like paranoia revolving around boys' fiction tropes. In the style of if it were real, could we cope?  If you read it you may not like some of the gruesome details but you probably will learn a bit about ants.

"Alien Insectoid Species Colonizes Much Of Earth--BBC"  (I reworded that title slightly for sweeps week here on Next Big Future:)
A single mega-colony of ants has colonised much of the world, scientists have discovered.

More data on the supercolony

 two super-colonies, with 33 populations consisting of millions of queens and billions of workers.

This of course is a benign species, aerating the soil, disposing of garbage, assisting man-- but what if it were not? What was the worst scenario involving ants ever?  If you had a book of short stories in grade or high school I am pretty sure this story was in it:

Outline of a classic 1930's adventure story-- Leiningen Versus The Ants
Ten miles long, two miles wide--ants, nothing but ants! And every single one of them a fiend from hell; before you can spit three times they'll eat a full-grown buffalo to the bones...

The Classic Story on Wikipedia
The horror  story in picture only PDF form

1959 Suspense radio play in mp3 form
Is the threat real?  No. No. No. Unless you're insect sized (or bed ridden and can't move in which case there's a real horror movie waiting to happen

Confirmation of this non-danger  and this all being a non-issue and more excerpts of the Leiningen Versus The Ants story

But still--- We got to wondering-- suppose 1) a super aggressive variant of man eating fire ant appeared, (ideally of recombinant alien DNA origins)  like a horror movie plot and 2) displaced the benign and beneficial ants spread across most of the rest of the world.

Could humanity cope now?  
This is frankly  a science fiction scenario and we are saving the friendly native ants from the invasive aggressor ants.  If you want to teach a 4th-6th grade science class, have them read this story (talk to the English teacher and coordinate things)  and then figure out what it would take to defend humanity.

Do we produce enough molten aluminum to pour down the gullet of say 90% of the ant nests in the world before they take over the last friendly 10% of ant nests and present us with a fait accompli of a fire ant dominated Earth?

A delusional movie plot? Of course! Never happen! But still-- could we cope? Are we man enough?  The question was--um--bugging me--so I thought to get it out of my mind by writing this post. 

Background briefing: Wikipedia on Ant Colonies
estimated millions of nests and billions of workers

Worldwide spread of ants
 numbers exceeding 10,000 trillion, Pulitzer-prize winning book The Ants, researchers Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson estimate that there are upwards of 10,000,000,000,000,000 individual ants alive on Earth at any given time.

Smithsonian on estimated numbers of insects in the world possibly 1000 times more insects in general than ants
From studies conducted by Terry Erwin of the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Entomology in Latin American forest canopies, the number of living species of insects has been estimated to be 30 million. Insects also probably have the largest biomass of the terrestrial animals. At any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive.

Certain social insects have large numbers in their nests. An ant nest in Jamaica was calculated to include 630,000 individuals. A South American termite nest was found to have 3 million individuals. Locust swarms are said to hold up to one billion individuals.

Friedlander here for a second-- I recall one locust swarm in Ethiopia that was said to be 10 x 10 square miles (250 square kilometers) From anecdotal studies I find 10 or even 100 billion locusts in the largest historical swarms at least plausible. 

 Recent figures indicate that there are more than 200 million insects for each human on the planet! A recent article in The New York Times claimed that the world holds 300 pounds of insects for every pound of humans.

Based on the Smithsonian article, the highest detailed estimate of an ant colony was 630,000 individuals. That implies trillions of workers, not billions.  So we can estimate maybe a maximum of 30 times this supercolony being the ant-inhabitable part of the world (hard to imagine them thriving in tundra or ice) so 30 times 10 million nests is 300 million nests and at say a million per nest (being generous say by a factor of 1.5) that would be 300 million nests with 300 trillion ants in the world. Note the above estimate of 10,000 trillion (10 million billion)  ants and that divided by 650,000 implies really a peak of  15 billion ant nests in the world. 

 In real life you would NOT want to harm them but this is a worst case scenario so let's get to it!

If you knew a simple death-ant swarm as Carl Stephenson describes (no I don't think the threat is real) was coming you could flood it with water, molten lava, concrete, aluminum. 

 So. Bombs away!Or rather, Commence pour! Scientists have dug out large ant nests completely cast with plaster or concrete.  Concrete costs money, (say $160 a cubic meter)  and molten aluminum more. (say $6000 a cubic meter including handling, over $1 a kilo)

In this movie we see concrete being poured prior to careful undigging to reveal a huge ant nests' extent --The amazing aerial view is about 3 minutes in and remember this is not the biggest ant nest there is by any means.  I suspect their study was budget limited. I am pretty sure the biggest ant next complexes are at least on the kilometer scale (many in association)

The one sure way to take out an entire small nest for study (as well as making a fascinating parlor or museum display) is to pour molten aluminum down the anthole and let it cast into the earth then dig it out and pressure wash it, revealing the shape of the colony. Try not to think of the Disney perspective of the Jiminy Cricket style happy singing cartoon ant

 turned in a blazing moment of unpleasant discovery into a Terminator 2 style liquid metal cast form of himself.  The guy pouring the aluminum IS giving a little whistle, and he IS letting his conscience be his guide.  And no, the ant doesn't crouch in pain then stand erect in liquid metal form and wreck his vengeance with a liquid metal smile. (I can believe the nestmates of the former ant swarming on the legs of the guy pouring the cast)

Note the alien beauty of the pressure washed off ant nest cast in aluminum. I wonder if that is as deep as it goes or just where the aluminum flow encountered difficulties.

So: our above estimate of 15 billion ant nests in the world 650000 individuals per nets, 10,000 trillion individual ants. 10e16  crawling ants. Pleasant dreams, everyone... If 90% turn aggressive Leiningen style ants and we need to take out that many nests, how much aluminum is that?
1.5 billion ant nests
52 kg (114 lb) aluminium casting per nest
seventy-eight billion kg aluminum
78 million tons (about 3 years production)

But that is for a small nest--
The wikipedia article gave  this fact: the largest known ant supercolony was on the Ishikari coast of Hokkaidō, Japan. The colony was estimated to contain 306 million worker ants and one million queen ants living in 45,000 nests interconnected by underground passages over an area of 2.7 km2 (670 acres).

But that implies only 6800 ants per nest. The Jamaican colony had 100 times that number.
2.74 million square meters top area divided by 45000 colonies implies an ant hill every 61 square meters. Note that even simultaneous pours into 45000 colonies at once done perfectly coordinated would leave some alive in deep passages (a lot of ant rooms are higher than the level of the lowest sump)-- if they would be buried alive they probably could dig their way out.

Not happy with the numbers spread in individuals per colony but the important thing is the number of total ants and total nests.  but on paper, yes we could probably hold our own, assuming the hostile ants could not intelligently plan terminator like assassinations and counterstrikes but just try general raids on human settlements.

What this crazy exercise in paranoid imagination proves is what powerful tools language and communication are.  A single story can rouse generations of boys to paranoid imaginings, and if a real threat emerged, people would probably hold their own simply because we can communicate to send help and reinforcements where battle is joined and the ant world cannot message with and assist each other.

And what if a competitor species arose that could do just that?  Ah, but that is another article...

If you liked this article, please give it a quick review on ycombinator or StumbleUpon. Thanks

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