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The Butterfly Effect


Weather prediction is an extremely difficult problem. Meteorologists can predict the weather for short periods of time, a couple days at most, but beyond that predictions are generally poor.

Edward Lorenz was a mathematician and meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who loved the study of weather. With the advent of computers, Lorenz saw the chance to combine mathematics and meteorology. He set out to construct a mathematical model of the weather, namely a set of differential equations that represented changes in temperature, pressure, wind velocity, etc. In the end, Lorenz stripped the weather down to a crude model containing a set of 12 differential equations.

On a particular day in the winter of 1961, Lorenz wanted to re-examine a sequence of data coming from his model. Instead of restarting the entire run, he decided to save time and restart the run from somewhere in the middle. Using data printouts, he entered the conditions at some point near the middle of the previous run, and re-started the model calculation. What he found was very unusual and unexpected. The data from the second run should have exactly matched the data from the first run. While they matched at first, the runs eventually began to diverge dramatically — the second run losing all resemblance to the first within a few “model” months. A sample of the data from his two runs in shown below:

Lorenz's Sample Data

At first Lorenz thought that a vacuum tube had gone bad in his computer, a Royal McBee — an extremely slow and crude machine by today’s standards. After discovering that there was no malfunction, Lorenz finally found the source of the problem. To save space, his printouts only showed three digits while the data in the computer’s memory contained six digits. Lorenz had entered the rounded-off data from the printouts assuming that the difference was inconsequential. For example, even today temperature is not routinely measured within one part in a thousand.

This led Lorenz to realize that long-term weather forecasting was doomed. His simple model exhibits the phenomenon known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” This is sometimes referred to as the butterfly effect, e.g. a butterfly flapping its wings in South America can affect the weather in Central Park. The question then arises — why does a set of completely deterministic equations exhibit this behavior? After all, scientists are often taught that small initial perturbations lead to small changes in behavior. This was clearly not the case in Lorenz’s model of the weather. The answer lies in the nature of the equations; they were nonlinear equations. While they are difficult to solve, nonlinear systems are central to chaos theory and often exhibit fantastically complex and chaotic behavior.

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