The Butterfly Tempest Weather Bulletin
Who, exactly, coined that memorable image that claimed that
a butterfly, flapping its wings in one part of the world, could
affect the weather on the other side of the globe? Edward Lorenz
is credited with using this image as the title of talk he gave
in 1972 to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.
has passed in and out of thousands of minds, but the actual
geographic locations seem to vary wildly. In the interests of
calming the public, we have attempted to record recent reports
of butterfly-induced weather catastrophes. We remind you, though,
that even if your locality is not listed here, that is no guarantee
that you are safe!
(Naturally, I can't divulge the efforts of a certain secret
agency to station a network of undercover butterflies across the
globe, exquisitely tuned and interconnected, prepared at any moment
to flutter their wings, causing unknown destruction in untold
"It's called the butterfly principle. Which is basically if a
bird flaps its wings in Africa it causes an apple to fall,
causes a chain reaction of a painting to be made of the apple,
somebody looks at the painting, forgets they gotta pick up their
mother after church and runs a red light and gets whopped for
eighty bucks. All because a bird flaps its wings in
Borbuga which is six million miles away."
From the movie "All the Real Girls", honest.
In the context of the Earth's atmosphere, chaos brings us
the "butterfly effect", the incredible conclusion that the flapping of
a butterfly's wings in Portugal now might just lead to
the formation of a severe thunderstorm over Moscow
in a couple of weeks' time.
"Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen"
We'll begin where many discussions of chaos do, with the tragic
tale of a butterfly from Brazil whose careless flapping has
caused more tornadoes in Kansas than all the future
sequels to The Wizard of Oz combined.
Edward Burger, Michael Starbird,
"Coincidences, Chaos and All That Math Jazz",
...whether a butterfly in Beijing flaps its wings
three times or only two can (in principle) alter totally
the weather in San Francisco some days hence.
David Campbell, Gottfried Mayer-Kress,
"Chaos and Politics: Applications of Nonlinear Dynamics
to Socio-Political Issues",
in: The Impact of Chaos on Science and Society,
edited by Celso Grebogi and James Yorke,
United Nations University Press, 1997.
If a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, then a month later
it may cause a hurricane in Brazil.
Jack Cohen, Ian Stewart,
from the lamentably unreadable "The Collapse of Chaos".
It is eerie to note, however, that the anonymous poster
about Ms Shelley's death had earlier in the year edited
the Wikipedia entry about the so-called Butterfly Effect,
the notion that a butterfly flapping its wings in
China can influence the weather in
Noam Cohen, The New York Times, 09 July 2007.
...Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who suggested
that a single flap of a seagull's wings could alter
the weather forever through a gradual accretion of energy.
"Change is Good: An Article That Explains Bookselling",
The New York Times, Sunday, 18 July 2004
Its gracefully interfolded wings remind us of the butterfly
that flutters in Venezuela only to cause a typhoon
"The Tinkertoy Computer and Other Machinations",
"I was reading in the paper the other day that the beating
of a butterfly's wings in a South American jungle
can cause a hurricane thousands of miles away," he began.
Michael Dibdin, in his murder mystery "A Long Finish".
"It was onced suggested, to illustrate the chaotic and unpredictable
way in which natural systems behave, that the beat of a butterfly's
wing in China can eventually trigger a hurricane
in the Atlantic."
The Economist, 08 September 2007.
The notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking
can transform storm systems next month in New York...
"Chaos: Making a New Science"
"A butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China
and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean."
"Havana", with Robert Redford and Lena Olin.
Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist at MIT and a pioneer of chaoplexity,
called this phenomenon the butterfly effect, because it meant that
a butterfly fluttering in Iowa could, in principle, trigger
an avalanche of effects culminating in a monsoon in Indonesia.
"The End of Science".
"I know exactly what he means. He was talking about the butterfly effect."
"That was a great movie!"
"One little change has a ripple effect and it affects everything else,
like a butterfly floats its wings and Tokyo explodes or there's a tsunami
in like somewhere."
"Hot Tub Time Machine".
"These aren't hand-waving hypotheticals used in chaos theory
classes, like that damn butterfly in China that's always
flapping one wing and thereby causing a Gulf Coast hurricane.
"The flapping of Amazonian butterflies that leads - famously -
to storms in Scotland is the universal image of how a
tiny disturbance may cause a great upheaval."
"Then, somewhere, a butterfly flapped its wings. A tropical storm
damaged the vessel [Cook's ship HMS Resolution] which lost its mast
and was forced to go back to Hawaii."
Here's how Dudley Smith, president and CEO of the World
Association of Management Consulting Firms, described the
Butterfly Effect to a ballroom full of consultants at the
group's 1996 world conference in Yokohama, Japan:
"We are no better at guessing tomorrow's weather than we are
at foretelling the millennium...A butterfly in Java
waves its wings and, as a result, the weather in Chicago
"If a Consultant Flaps His Lips in Yokohama...",
Fast Company.Com, Issue 07, February 1997, Page 46.
"Somewhere, a butterfly opened its wings."
"And why is it I have come to think of myself as the proverbial
butterfly in Australia, which only has to flap its wings
to start an earthquake on the other side of the earth."
John Le Carre,
"A Most Wanted Man"
"A butterfly flapped its wings in a New York luxury hotel suite,
and the fate of entire nations is suddenly in play.
Andrew Leonard, in an article in Salon.com, 18 May 2011, about the
arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
In retrospect I marvel at how the problem arose and was resolved.
It was as though having that particular file in my system, along
with the preexisting program caused the same chaos as a butterfly
flapping its wings in Indonesia. The machine's eventual
breakdown was the hurricane in Kansas.
Stephen Levy, "Insanely Great"
(The butterfly is in the Amazon
and the storm is in Chicago.)
"Complexity: Life at the edge of Chaos"
Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil
set off a tornado in Texas?
You think God looks out for people? said Rawlins.
Yeah. I guess He does. You?
Yeah. I do. Way the world is. Somebody can wake up and sneeze
somewhere in Arkansas or some damn place and before
you're done there's wars and ruination and all hell.
Cormac McCarthy, "All the Pretty Horses".
This became known as the butterfly effect, since a butterfly moving its wings
in India could cause a hurricane in New York, two years later.
Nassim Taleb, "The Black Swan".
In other cases what seemed like an unremarkable bit of butterfly
wing-flapping in the West set off a tsunami in
Mark Oppenheimer, reviewing "The Tenth Parallel" in the New York Times,
18 August 2010.
The sensitive dependence of nonlinear systems on their initial conditions has been
called the Butterfly Effect, from the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings
in Chine, say, might spell the difference several months later between
a hurricane and a balmy day along the eastern US seaboard.
"A Mathematician Looks at the Newspaper".
A butterfly flutters its wings somewhere and starts up
an irreversible and unpredictable process.
"The Butterfly Effect",
In the extreme, consider the "butterfly effect" that describes
chaos theory as applied to weather forecasting; a butterfly flapping
its wings in California ultimately has a long-term effect
on the weather in Beijing.
Shared Memory: Standards Scale Up with SGI Altix UV,
The flapping of a single butterfly's wing today produces a
tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period
of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from
what it would have done. So, in a month's time, a tornado
that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn't
happen. Or maybe one that wasn't going to happen does.
"Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos"
When a butterfly in Tokyo flaps its wings, the result may
be a hurricane in Florida a month later.
This phenomenon is often called the "butterfly effect", wherein
a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can produce a
thunderstorm in Florida...the same butterfly could calm
a hurricane in Texas simply by flapping its wings in
a certain fashion.
For example, it is the basis for the so-called butterfly effect,
which states that small causes can lead to great consequences:
A butterfly flapping its wings in Texas could provoke
a thunderstorm in Australia.
The equations that governed the flow of wind and moisture looked simple
enough, for example - until researchers realized that the flap of a
butterfly's wings in Texas could change the course of a hurricane
in Haiti a week later. Or that a flap of that butterfly's
wings a millimeter to the left might have deflected the hurricane in a
totally different direction.
Due to nonlinearities in weather processes, a butterfly
flapping its wings in Tahiti can, in theory, produce
a tornado in Kansas.
Eric Weisstein, editor,
CRC Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics,
"Could a butterfly in a West African rain forest,
by flitting to the left of a tree rather than to the right,
possibly set into motion a chain of events that escalates
into a hurricane striking coastal South Carolina
a few weeks later?"
Ernest Zebrowski, "Perils of a Restless Planet"
It has been said that something as small as the flutter
of a butterfly's wings can ultimately cause a typhoon
halfway around the world. - Chaos Theory
an opening quote in the movie "The Butterfly Effect"
"Chaos theory states that if a butterfly flaps its wings in
Grosse Pointe, it will eventually cause a hurricane in
"I've heard that."
"Well imagine what would happen in Hawaii if the two of us hooked up!"
The teen soap opera spoof "Grosse Pointe".
"Don't they say the beating of a butterfly's wings
over the Atlantic can cause a hurricane
in the Pacific?"
"Happenstance", French title "Le battement d'ailes du papillon"
("The beating of the wings of a butterfly").
Brian: "You ever hear of the theory that if you kill a butterfly in the past
it can drastically alter the future? Well who knows what else we changed?"
Announcer: "Tonight on the Tonight Show, movie star George Clooney."
Peter: "Oh, he's good."
Announcer: "Comedian Dave Chappelle."
Brian: "He's funny, like him."
Announcer: "And musician Harry Connick Jr."
Peter: "Wow, what a show."
Announcer: "And now, ladies and gentleman, heeeeeeeeeere's Chevy!"
Peter: "Oh god Brian, we messed up bad! We messed up real bad!"
"The Family Guy"
It's the butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico
and causing a hurricane in China.
Hannah Fry, "Why Weather Forecasting Keeps Getting Better",
The New Yorker, 24 June 2019.
Last revised on 11 November 2019.