Chaos Theory and the Snowboarder Effect


Last night I woke up at 2:30 a.m. and had trouble falling back asleep. So I did exactly what I knew I shouldn’t do: I took a peek at Facebook. Soon I was linking to an article about a Montana boy who dug his way out of the snow after being crushed in an avalanche that killed his elderly neighbor. The tragedy was triggered by a snowboarder riding in restricted terrain on Mount Jumbo. I tweeted the story, calling it The Snowboarder Effect.


Which led me to research the true definition of the Butterfly Effect: a property of chaotic systems by which small changes in initial conditions can lead to large-scale and unpredictable variation in the future state of the system. Yep, the initial condition was a snowpack “at its tipping point,” according to Mark Staples, an avalanche specialist. The small change was a solitary snowboarder. The large-scale and unpredictable variation was the resultant slide into a populated area, which is highly unusual, as well as the chaos and loss that arose in the community after the event.


Which sounded like Butterfly Effect to me, but not satisfied at 3:00 a.m., I went on to research other laws of chaos theory, including Avalanche Theory (a sufficiently strong electrical force that breaks free a large number of electrons, resulting in the avalanche effect – according to, Boomerang Effect (a persuasive form of communication sent to a receiver yet returned back with the opposite reaction so that the consequential result is not what was intended – according to, and the Law of Unintended Consequences. This law is frequently applied in economic analysis but is also relevant in the social sector, and, as a cousin of Murphy’s Law and perhaps a descendent of the Butterfly Effect, basically holds that the actions of people (as opposed to butterflies or other natural phenomenon) always have unanticipated or unintended effects.


Which made me wonder whether the snowboarder triggered a Butterfly Effect or a Law of Unintended Consequences, but now that it was 3:30 a.m., I decided I didn’t much care. However, I then proceeded to think about the narrator of my novel, The Damnable Legacy of A Minister’s Wife.


Knowing she is about to die, she designs a plan to bring together a mid-life mountain-climbing woman and the teenaged granddaughter the climber has never known. The narrator has the best of intentions here, but there is bound to be blowback.  Unintended Consequences. What she left behind was, in fact, a damnable legacy – a plan worthy of condemnation, at least in some respects. I had no idea, when I set out to write this novel, that I was writing about a law of chaos theory. I was simply writing about characters and their individual complexities. I suppose all writers, in a way, are traipsing through chaos and, for that matter, all stories – no matter how they’re planned out – wind up with Unintended Consequences not just for the character but for the writer and reader too.


Which is to say that you never know what’s really going to happen, do you? You just muddle through the best you can and hope you don’t leave too much collateral damage behind. And you also hope you don’t leave too many hours of lost sleep behind, which I did.



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2 Responses to Chaos Theory and the Snowboarder Effect

  1. Gail — you have some good stuff here about the mysterious manner in which fiction happens. I like the way you associate the theories of life, the universe and everything with the real life tragedy and your own work. Got me pondering.

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