The Chaos Theory Controls Weather

Ideas and Issues


Missoula   After almost a dozen days of clear skies, hot days, and cool nights, we were reminded what weather is really like in the mountains. At first it was a piddling kind of rain common in the West. A rain no one would hardly notice as more than a momentary annoyance or cause you to break your stride. Rain might be in your face even as you could see sunshine on the side of the mountain coming your way. Gear was moved under cover, but it was mainly the heavens spitting at the dust. Then the next day dark clouds crept over the mountains and announced that they were upon us with thunder claps, steady rain, and occasional downpours so that we felt lucky that there was now a roof over the eating area at the camp. Fog encrusted the mountains as I drove the dirt road along the creek to take the first two of our team to town and travel. We had asked someone at a fishing shop about the weather, and they had called it all the way, but who knew if we would be packing tents and awnings wet or dry?

All of which made sense to me because I had been reading a book about wind and weather, And Soon I Had Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Air, by Bill Streever. The book was as much about weather, meteorology, and the science or lack of it in predicting the weather as it was about the wind per se, but fascinating all the same. And, truth to tell for all of the amazing progress especially over the last 100 years or so, partly spurred on by military demands on the science and its practitioners that were much more effective than simple farmers or travelers, we’re still a bit clueless.

If you’ve every cursed the weather forecasters thinking they should be able to give you so much better information, maybe it’s worth knowing that there’s still huge guesswork in the whole enterprise governed more by chaos theory than rigid, predictable applied science. Streever offered a simple explanation that chaos theory holds that small incidents or events can lead to major implications and outcomes. One mathematician wrote a paper on whether the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Texas could cause a tornado in Brazil, and argued following the theory that you couldn’t discount that possibility, even if you couldn’t prove it.

When applied to wind and weather, the whole world becomes the weather pattern of the mountains, where a change here or there might not be as visible as rain pouring down on your tent or trailer while you are watching blue sky and sunshine on a mountain several miles away, but it’s close, since the physics of wind movement can change and disrupt any forecast. That’s not to say they are clueless, but that they have to embrace chaos and change.

Coming back on-the-grid for another year, that’s probably a lesson worth remembering for me and perhaps for all of us.