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Ripple in Water

Tipping Points, Ripple Effects, and Other Environmental Concerns

Here are some terms for environmental effects. Do you understand them?

Domino Effect

This occurs when a series of events are connected. The connections are direct, one to the next. The term comes from the pastime of setting up rows of domino tiles, so that when you knock one over, it topples the next, which topples the next, and so on until all the dominos fall down.

Dominos ready to topple

As a game, it was fun! As an environmental problem, it’s not so amusing.

For instance, if bluefin tuna are overfished and their populations decrease, guess what? All the creatures they used to eat, like jellyfish, then increase in numbers. And then more swimmers going into the water from beaches might get stung! That’s a domino effect.

Ripple Effect

This is a lot like the domino effect. The only real difference is that effects spread out in all directions.

Ripple in Water

Think of what happens when you toss a pebble into a pond. The ripples start to flow out in all directions from where that stone hits the water.

What happens, for instance, when you drain a  marshy area in an urban area and pave it over with solid concrete? There may be a number of consequences. Few wetland birds will visit the area. No frogs will live there. And rainwater will run off more quickly.

The consequences go on. Where I live, in Milwaukee, too much rainwater runoff during a big storm can overrun the sewers, because both rainwater and sewage from houses (toilets, etc.) use the same sewers. Normally, the water goes first to a treatment plant to get cleaned up. But if the volume is too great, the city has to release the extra volume directly into Lake Michigan. This dumps raw sewage into the lake. Fish, of course, are effected. So are kids who don’t get to swim if the dangerous bacteria count in the water is too high and the beaches have to be closed.

Butterfly Effect

Here, the effects become complicated, so much that they are impossible to trace! The idea comes from this concept: a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, and many days or weeks later, that flapping contributes, in a tiny way, to a tornado that touches down in a field in Texas. It that possible? The concept is that everything is related. Even a minor, distant event has consequences.


Of course, because something like weather is so complex, we can’t pinpoint every tiny bit of data that might contribute to something as dramatic as a tornado. But small things affect medium-sized things, and those medium-sized things influence still greater things. Maybe in the end, it all leads to something big. We can’t know beforehand, and even afterwards can’t track it all.

But our environment is very complex. We should understand that small things we do, like throwing a recyclable piece of plastic away into the garbage so it goes into a landfill instead of being recycled, has an effect on the world. The effect is hard to trace, but it exists. And many small actions contribute to create big results.

A Tipping Point

This is a special kind of effect, one that can be very dramatic. Picture a bucket, sitting somewhat askew, on a steep slope. You toss in one stone, and nothing at all happens. Same for the next stone, and the next. But at some point, when the bucket is nearly full and becomes top-heavy, a single stone added can make the whole bucket suddenly tip over.

That’s the tipping point!

Another image: a rock is balanced on the edge of a cliff. A bird sits on the outer edge. Nothing. A dozen more birds join the first bird. Nothing. Then one more tiny bird sits, and the point of balance is crossed. The stone topples off the cliff.

It’s like the game called Jenga, where a tall stack of blocks is built. Then, a block is carefully pulled away. And then another. The tower stands, until suddenly it crashes down.

This kind of effect is common in environmental issues. Small negative things can be absorbed, at least for a while. And if the change is reversed in time, maybe stability will return to the system before it collapses. But if the small negative events continue, at some point the system suddenly can become totally unstable, and its balance is lost, possible forever.

Some scientists worry that we may be approaching a tipping point for climate change. What happens if the whole Earth passes a tipping point for global warming?

At first, the ocean absorbs a lot of heat, so maybe at first we don’t notice the slow change in worldwide temperatures. But the planet seems to be gradually getting warmer. The polar ice caps are melting at a faster rate. Severe weather episodes like hurricanes are becoming more intense and more frequent. Can we reverse this trend before it’s too late? Not very easily. But scientists are studying this and looking for answers.

What Does This Mean?

All these effects mean, simply, that things in the environment are connected.

The domino effect and the ripple effect are concepts for connections that become visible at some point. The butterfly effect, on the other hand, is invisible. And the tipping point effect is invisible until it crashes, and all of a sudden it’s too late to do anything to save the situation.

So let’s learn to act as if small things matter. Understand that small action spread, and many small things can add up to large things.

If you’re in school, you might think of study projects you can do to explore these ideas more. Here are a few ideas:

  • What if there was a ban on the sale of ivory chess sets and ivory jewelry and all ivory products worldwide?
  • What if one big state in the U.S., like California, decided to ban a certain pesticide that wasn’t banned in other states?
  • What if a celebrity stopped wearing fur?
  • What if your classroom did a project to create a wildflower garden for bees and other pollinator insects? Or did a recycling project? Or raised money to protect an acre of rainforest in the Amazon?

What might be the consequences?

Any of the effects mentioned above can be good or bad, depending on what is involved. A good outcome happens when small positive actions add up to real change, to good ripples and tipping points. And you and your family and community reap some real benefits.

One last effect: the Snowball Effect.

This works when something appealing or “viral” is put into motion. The snowball starts small, but grows bigger and bigger, until it might become unstoppable!

Remember: your actions, even if you are just one person, can have that effect. You do have an effect on the world, and you can play a greater role if you get involved and can inspire others.

As Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, wrote in a sequel to that book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet: “Nothing, no one, is too small to matter.

“What you do is going to make a difference.”

This post is by Philip Martin, director of Crickhollow Books, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, publisher of the WAKA series of wild-animal rescue stories for young readers.

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