The Sea Butterfly Effect

September 21, 2013 Updated: September 21, 2013

Mathematicians have developed the concept of chaos theory. In a nutshell, this says that some processes are incredibly sensitive to the conditions at the time they start; things can turn out very differently with each tiny variation at the beginning.

This lead to the term, the Butterfly Effect, coined by Edward Lorenz (1917-2008) and created the idea that much in nature is unpredictable.

I’ve always been intrigued by the theory; fascinated with such an absurd concept that seemed beyond proof and yet so believable. Could the beating of a butterfly’s wings really start the chain reaction that eventually grows into a whirlwind that destroys us all?

A few days ago I ran across an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about one of the most charming creatures in the ocean. Sea butterflies are tiny ‘snails’ that are so light they are able to either ‘fly’ through the shallow waters of the oceans or glide hanging upside down on the water’s surface using their foot. From a biologist’s perspective they are quite beautiful and very ‘cool’.

Called Pteropods, the fragile sea butterflies are only a few millimeters long and have nearly transparent shells that are incredibly thin to make fluttering through the ocean possible.

Their plankton diet makes up the foundation of the ocean food pyramid and the sea butterflies are the first step in making food for larger animals. Surprisingly, ocean food pyramids are rather short. Four or five steps usually gets to the top, to what are called the ‘apex’ predators.

But man started a time bomb ticking at the end of the 18th Century when we began burning fossil fuels to power our industry and fulfill our dreams. In the USA, more than 90 percent of greenhouse gases come from fossil fuels. We now produce about 40 thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide every minute, double the earth’s ability to deal with it naturally.As the carbon dioxide combines with seawater molecules, a chemical called carbonic acid in a process called ocean acidification.

The effects of ocean acidification are already measurable. Emily Frost and Hannah Waters of Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal (May, 2013) report that the shells of sea butterflies in the arctic have already begun dissolving in the more acid sea. Their loss may have a staggering impact on whales heading north to feed after calving in the tropics.

Whales may be the first alarm bell ringing as the effects of acidification and the loss of tiny shelled creatures spreads across the oceans. Closer to the equator are squid, anchovy and herring fisheries and the even larger tuna and mackerel they support. Many species like the giant whale shark and basking shark are directly dependent on the lower levels of the food pyramid. The commercial fisheries most at risk supply about 40 percent of the protein to five billion people.

Will everything in the ocean die?

The answer is definitely not. But the future ocean will be a lot different to the one we know today. There will be winners and losers in the race to survive. Those species unable to find suitable food will of course dwindle and face extinction. Those that shift to other prey species will bring enormous pressure to bear on their new food and cause the balance of the whole ecosystem to shift even farther.

A few years ago (2009) , Martin Scheffer of Wageningen University in The Netherlands together with a number of other scientists published in the journal Nature.
They found that many things from climate, to nature, to finance show similar behaviors as they approach a point of change called a ‘tipping point’ where processes strike off in an unpredictable direction. “It’s increasingly clear that many complex systems have critical thresholds — ‘tipping points’ — at which these systems shift abruptly from one state to another,” write the researchers.

So what about the sea butterflies? We set an unknown course when we started to burn fossil fuels more than 200 years ago. With that new found power we remade the world and our lives to suit us but in the process we have ‘tread’ on the lives of a few tiny species that really do matter. They are the underpinning of much of our future and the survival of millions.

How ironic that when Edward Lorenz coined the expression, Butterfly Effect, in 1969 he described without knowing the biological cataclysm that would throw the world into chaos 80 years later.

In the crystal waters of the Andaman Sea where whale sharks come to feed I can just see tiny sea butterflies a few centimeters below the surface. Their wings are beating now but for how much longer? Will it be their loss that really starts the chain reaction that eventually grows into an environmental ‘whirlwind’ that destroys us all?

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.