Tag Archives: El Niño

Global contrapment, Rube Goldberg style

I had a crazy game called Mouse Trap when I was a kid. It involved an elaborate chain of mechanisms meant to trap a plastic mouse in a cage. When I read Chris Wood’s new Natural Security column I remembered that game — and shivered to imagine earth’s mechanisms as a game contraption, on a vast scale and speeding up. An excerpt of Wood’s column:

precipanom_trmm_200611Rube Goldberg is long dead, but the figurative machine to which he gave his name lives on. It’s that whimsical confection where a rolling marble tips a lever that sends a toy plane whizzing down a wire to bump into a scissors that cuts a string that drops a water balloon on a sleeping victim — or some variation with even more steps. Assemblies of apparently unrelated parts accomplishing as little as possible.

Earth’s climate is a lot like a Rube Goldberg machine: a vast assembly of invisibly connected parts, pushing and pulling each other around the spherical planet to achieve, for the last 12,000 years at least, a lot of movement of heat and wind and water, but very little change in the overall state of affairs. Some of its parts are like ‘levers’ that nod back and forth between different conditions (the famous el niño is of this type). Others are more like toy planes on wires, zipping energy from place to place (monsoons and jet-streams are like that).

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