Chaos theory is perhaps best known as the field that gave us the “butterfly effect.” Put simply, that’s the idea that near imperceptibly tiny changes in the setup of a process can add up to a very big difference in outcome – or, more poetically, that “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil [could] set off a tornado in Texas.”
Now, scientists from the RIKEN Center for Computational Science in Japan are putting this mathematical soundbite to the test – literally.
“The control of weather is humans’ long-time desire, and if we know when and where to put a ‘butterfly’, we could lead a better life by, for example, reducing the risks of tornadoes,” they write in a recent paper published in the journal Nonlinear Processes in Geophysics.
“We aim to apply ‘the control of chaos’ to the weather,” the authors continue. “We do not aim to cause a permanent irreversible change to nature, but we would like to control the weather within its natural variability … If the proper infinitesimal perturbations are within our engineering capability, we could apply the control in the real world.”
It’s certainly not a new idea to try to harness control over the weather – Paul McCartney famously dumped a bunch of dry ice into the sky to stop it raining during a concert in 2004, for example – but this approach is totally novel. Using the Lorenz butterfly as a proxy for complex weather patterns, the researchers ran observing systems simulation experiments (OSSEs) – a kind of computer-generated test run of the weather – to see how introducing small changes to the system would affect the result.
Basically, the researchers were working with chaos theory back to front: instead of looking at a small change and seeing what effect it has on the outcome, they were picking the outcome they wanted and then figuring out which small change would cause it.
“We have successfully built a new theory and methodology to study the controllability of weather,” said Takemasa Miyoshi, who led the research team.
“Based on observing the system simulation experiments used in previous studies, we were able to design an experiment to investigate predictability, on the assumption that the true values (nature) cannot be changed, but rather that we can change the idea of what can be changed (the object to be controlled).”
This is just a first step, and the researchers say they have no desire to try to control the weather on a large scale – “any real-world application requires extensive caution,” they write, and care must be taken to “consider and assess every potential impact caused by the control and have proper protocols for social, ethical, and legal agreement about real-world operations.” But, as the climate crisis continues to increase the risk of extreme weather events around the world, the team say their new approach may someday mean the difference between life and death.
“In this case, we used an ideal low-dimensional model to develop a new theory, and in the future, we plan to use actual weather models to study the possible controllability of weather,” said Takemasa.
“If realized, this research could help us prevent and mitigate extreme windstorms, such as torrential rains and typhoons, whose risks are increasing with climate change.”