This June, a 21,000-tonne diesel fuel spill painted red a huge swath of Siberian wilderness – an accident so grave that Greenpeace compared it to the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the Alaskan coast. The supports under an oil tank that was last checked in 2018, simply cracked.
We all know that bad things can happen. Yet, rather than a matter of misfortune, this was the consequence of a consequence of a consequence. The reservoir broke because the soil collapsed. The soil collapsed because Siberian permafrost is not ‘permanently’ frozen anymore. The Arctic has been experiencing 15 years of double-rate warming (with the city of Verkhoyansk reaching a 38°C record in July).
Elsewhere, swarms of desert locusts containing up to 200 billion insects, have already devoured thousands of hectares of crops in East Africa, Yemen, Pakistan and India. According to the FAO, in a single day a swarm the size of Paris will consume the same amount of food as half the population of France. Considered the worst locust outbreak in 70 years, it could lead to mass starvation in the world’s most vulnerable areas. The crisis was aggravated by years of abnormal weather: in 2018 two cyclones drenched the driest part of the Arabian peninsula and the same happened last December in the Horn of Africa.
The monumental size of these swarms is a consequence of something else, too. It was Edward Lorenz, the founder of modern Chaos Theory who first proposed the ‘Butterfly Effect’. A butterfly fluttering its wings somewhere can trigger a tornado elsewhere. More prosaically, a tiny change in initial conditions can create a dramatically divergent outcome. It is precisely what is happening in Siberia, in East Africa and in so many other corners of this planet.
Nor are we talking solely about the cascading effects of climate change. Fertilisers asphyxiate lakes and oceans. Pesticides exterminate pollinating species. Plastics pollute water, land and also air (a new study in Science estimates that more than 1,000 tons of microplastics fall on US protected areas every year).
These kind of changes are not as minuscule as a butterfly flapping away. They add chaos to the terrestrial system. They interact, often reinforcing themselves. They are bound to produce many more consequences of consequences.