6 Tiny Things That Have Mind-Blowing Global Impacts

The butterfly effect isn't just a confusing mess of a movie about prison beatings and child molestation starring the guy from Punk'd, it's an actual scientific principal. Every day, seemingly insignificant things can make changes on a global scale.

#6. Termites Are Warming the Planet

If we said termites have a worldwide impact, you'd assume we're talking about eating buildings. And they do their share of damage (to the tune of about $2.5 billion a year) but their real impact is less obvious. Most of the planet's population of termites are living peacefully in massive colonies in more tropical regions (well, we guess they live peacefully, the other bugs may consider them assholes for all we know). They live in giant mounds, they look like either aliens have invaded and built mini skyscrapers, or the earth itself is sporting wood.


Figure 1.1: Earth-boner.

So how are these little guys changing the planet? Well...

The Impact:

Those giant mounds actually serve a greater purpose than just giving anteaters easy access to food. They are actually part of a complex HVAC system that termites use to regulate the temperature of their colonies and move gases in and out. Which gas is being emitted by the termites that requires a structure the size of a skyscraper to manage? It's Methane, also known as the almost-as-bad-as-CO2 contributor to Global Warming.

Fuck! Global warming again? But how in the hell can these tiny things emit enough of any gas for anybody to even notice?

Through sheer numbers. See, each of those mounds can hold up to two million termites. There are thought to be 250 trillion termites in the world (outnumbering humans 40,000-to-one), and that's one of the more conservative estimates.


250 trillion of these.

Imagine all of them together, farting out methane 24 hours a day. Experts think they're the second largest source of natural methane in the world, though some estimates think it's far more than that.

It's almost inspirational, if you think about it. That by working together, even the tiniest of us can combine our efforts and, uh, destroy a planet.


Teamwork!

#5. Aircraft Contrails are Cooling the Planet

In case you didn't know, contrails are those wispy little clouds left behind jets as they fly high overhead, shuttling families to Disney World and harboring people boning with a foot in a toilet full of blue water.


You can't tell, but the pilots are blaring "Higher" by Van Halen

They are caused by jet engine exhaust cooling. They then cause water droplets to condense in the cold temperatures high up in the atmosphere.

At any given time you see, what, one of these a day? Unless you live near an airport? Can't be that big of a deal, right?

The Impact:

Believe it or not, it turns out all of those little trails of ice and water in the stratosphere do have an impact--and a noticeable one--on the temperature of the earth. And we're not even talking about Global Warming this time.

You see, for a long time, scientists thought that vapor trails from aircraft might play a role in Global Dimming, where shit in the sky actually blocks the sun and causes the earth to cool. During the week after 9/11, they got their proof.

The forced no-flight policy for the few days after the attacks gave scientists the opportunity to see how the lack of any contrails affected the temperature, and god damn if the overall temperature of the U.S. didn't go up one degree Celsius during that time.


"This isn't going to help those conspiracy theories."

That may not sound like a lot, but keep in mind that when Krakatoa blew up in 1883, it changed the global temperature by the same amount and fucked up the climate for years afterward. Not bad for what amounts to the earthly equivalent of your head being wrapped in a few strands of hair.


As you can clearly see, this is a bad thing.

Then again, commercial air travel alone accounts for almost 100,000 freaking flights every damned day, and that doesn't count all of the thousands more military flights and so on, each one leaving a contrail that spans hundreds or thousands of miles.

Seriously, look at this simulation:

Each of those yellow dots is an airplane.

#4. The Three Gorges Dam in China Shook the Globe

You can say this about the Chinese: They think big. Their population, their economy, that huge wall.

So it only seems fitting that they would also build the world's biggest dam, which, to the people who lived in the area that eventually became its basin, was also the biggest pain in the ass.

While there were all sorts of environmental consequences to the project (and some fear many more down the line), it's just one dam. And it's in the middle of goddamned China, so it doesn't affect you, right?

The Impact:

It changed the goddamned rotation of the earth. And it thus made the days longer. That's right, it did exactly the same thing Superman did when he turned back time. Sort of.


We're still confused about all of that.

We've long suspected that dams could do this, simply because when you shift the weight of the water around the globe, it affects the way the globe spins on its axis. It's the same as how a figure skater can spin faster by holding her arms above her head.

So, when China opened the dam and filled the reservoir with 42-billion tons of water, the whole planet wobbled on its axis, and even slowed ever so slightly (the days after were longer by less than a microsecond--but still, we should have gotten overtime for it).

That is some scary, supervillain shit there. While being able to see the Great Wall from space is impressive, moving an entire planet is in the realm of Galactus in terms of huge. So why didn't the rest of the world declare war on China to stop them from tearing the earth out of its orbit and sending it skidding into the sun?

Because a little wobble in the rotation shouldn't hurt anybody, since natural "wobbles" happen all of the time (due to ice melting patterns and that sort of thing). Still, the fact that a big hunk of concrete built by humans could change the rotation of the earth at all, has to make you stop and shiver a little bit.

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