The butterfly effect and the environment

You’ve probably heard the old saying that goes along the lines of “a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and an earthquake occurs in China”.

This is a rather exaggerated example of what is known as the butterfly effect; that little things can spark off major disturbances.

On my property in the outback, I see quite a few dust devils. While not having the destructive force of a tornado ( they can reach about 75mph wind speed), they can be quite eerie and make a bit of a mess.

I learned very quickly not to forget to weigh my mobile solar panel rig down, even on calm days. On one occasion, I watched it being picked up by a dust devil (the rig weighs about 35 pounds), seemed to magically hang in the air for a few seconds before being dumped glass face down onto a rocky area.

Dust devils usually occur on hot, still days. On the most active days, it gets so warm that the place goes deathly quiet as all the creatures seek shelter.

Usually at some point on these days, I’ll hear a “whoomp, whoomp, whoomp” sound and if the dust devil is close enough, I’ll feel the air being sucked into it. I’ve measured this suction reaching approximately 20 miles an hour at a distance of around 50 yards from the dust devil. It’s an extraordinary sensation; like standing in front of a large vacuum cleaner.

The dust devil will pass and things return to silence.. until the next one.

They are a fascinating phenomenon, so I’ve been researching a little more on the topic – and this is where the butterfly effect comes in.

Dust devils form when a pocket of particularly hot air at ground level punches through a layer of relatively cooler air above it. The cooler air acts like a sort of blanket, holding the warmer air down until a critical point is reached.

The interesting bit is that something as small as a rabbit moving through the area can create enough disturbance to punch through the layer, and the dust devil formation begins. A dust devil may last under a minute or up to several hours.

So, this hypothetical rabbit moving through a small area can spark a phenomenon that does have the capacity to cause disruption over quite a wide area for a long period of time.

It’s these sorts of things that remind me of my own potential impact on the environment around me – the little things I do that I don’t think have any consequence may indeed do. For example, turning over a rock and not returning it to its original position may make a lizard homeless. A leisurely walk through the bush may startle animals, separating them from their young.

I’m certainly not saying we should deprive ourselves of such wonderful experiences as hiking etc.; but just that while being a human certainly has its perks, along with the intellect and capacity for awareness also comes with a huge responsibility that most of us, including me, haven’t quite grasped the depth of.