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.
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...
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Rats Are Eating Your Food
Now we questioned including rats here, not because they're insignificant, but because you probably already think of them as the species that spread the Plague around Europe back in the day, killing, well, almost everyone.
But you can't really blame the rats for that one. The plague was carried by fleas on the rats, and of course ultimately was a bacteria inside the flea. No, rats' effect on the world is much more direct than that.
A lot of you have lost food in your cabinets to a mouse or a rat, grabbing a pack of Ramen only to find the little bastard has gnawed off the corner.
Great. There goes 12 cents you'll never get back.
So, how much of the world's food would you say rats eat? Seriously, guess.
It turns out rats destroy or contaminate up to 40 percent of our food, at least in poor and rural areas where the little bastards eat 20 percent of the crops, then eat another 20 percent of the grain after it's in storage.
Worldwide, rats are thought to eat or otherwise ruin up to 10 percent of everything humans produce.
Ten Percent. It's like a cosmic tax taken out of humanity's paycheck. One dollar out of every 10 gets fed to a rat.
See, rats have been kind of riding on humans' coattails. The planet's rat population exploded right along with humans, as our tendency to grow huge amounts of food and just leave it laying around--and to build sprawling sewers for them to live in--made us the perfect match. Rats are born survivors, and are very much like cockroaches with developed hands, dog-like intelligence and a spine, which should terrify the shit out of you.
So if you got in your time machine and went forward 1,000 years, would you find rats had become the dominant species on the planet, having eaten all of our food and starved us to death? Almost certainly not. After all, they need to keep us around. To grow their food for them.
Your Lamp is Making Everything Sick
With all the focus put on carbon footprints, acid rain and mercury-poisoned water, "light pollution" sounds like one of those bullshit kinds of pollution, like littering. The term is referring to the ambient light from all those street lamps and skyscrapers and porch lights and light spilling out of your windows.
Still... everybody can just close a damned curtain, right?
Some people should be required to close theirs.
Check out a view of the U.S. from space, courtesy of NASA:
That's a lot of fucking light. This is why we build observatories high on mountains, so that their lenses don't get cluttered by street lamps, thoughtless neighbor's halogen security lights that stay on all night and the constant neon glow of red light districts.
Do you know what happened for a long-ass time before we started lighting thousands of square miles of earth every night? Predation, migration and sleeping. It seems that after several billion years of spinning and producing a night and day cycle, life on earth got used to it. Then, in the last 100 years, we started fucking things up by lighting everything night and day.
It turns out that our worldwide leaving of our collective lights on has fucked up migration patterns, screwed up predator's hunting grounds and schedules, and created a host of problems for those of us that put them there in the first place. It also causes algae to spread in lakes (which is good for the algae but bad for anyone who wants to use the water) because, for some reason, artificial light deters the creatures that normally eat the algae.
Us humans don't exactly get off easy, either. Not only does all that light screw up our ability to sleep properly, but also increases headaches, worker fatigue, sexual dysfunctions and the lowered melatonin levels caused by all of this have been linked to an increase in breast cancer.
OK, is this enough evidence to at least get them to stop putting those irritating blue LED's on all of our electronics? Our houses are starting to look like spaceships at night. Is there a petition we can sign?
Jellyfish Change the Currents of the Ocean
The ocean is a big place; approximately 71 percent of our planet is covered with it, it's deep and big shit like whales, giant squid and Cthulhu hide in it with no issue. We all know that the tides and waves are created by the moon and winds and other factors. But there's another, more ridiculous cause...
It turns out that a while ago, scientists were having some problems studying the ocean similar to those of scientists studying the cosmos; they had a bunch of really big, brainy equations describing how things worked, then compared them to reality and found a huge damned hole in the equation.
Specifically, in accounting for why the currents move the way they do. The X-factor turned out to be jellyfish, and regular fish and all the little creatures swimming in the ocean.
There is something in fluid dynamics called "fluid drift," and it has to do with the way water sticks to the bodies of swimming creatures. Apparently every living thing in the ocean combines to move enough water to stir things up as much as the moon and wind. That's right: every tuna, shark, whale and evil, terrifying deep sea monster is as responsible for waves and riptides as the freaking moon.
Even the ones that may not be real.
If you want a visual, imagine this:
Multiplied by this:
Yeah, that's one of those things you study from afar.
Do you have something funny to say about a random topic? You could be on the front page of Cracked.com tomorrow. Go here and find out how to create a Topic Page.
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 2.2.2010) to see how Cracked influences the Internet.