Taking a closer look at the proverbial snowball effect | The Weatherman

Weather builds off itself — and so does society.

Last time I wrote about the “Butterfly Effect,” but another “effect” has made it even more into the lexicon. That is the “snowball effect.” As in “it snowballed out of control” or “watch out, it will snowball on you.” The snowball, as it rolls downhill, gathers snow and gets bigger, and the bigger it gets, the more snow it gathers, and so on, until the snowball gets so large it breaks apart. The “snowball” is just a metaphor for positive feedback where one action makes the second action bigger, then in turn the second action increases the first action, and so on.

There are lots of snowball effects in the weather. One factor in turning a normal thunderstorm into a deadlier one and in turn into a tornadic one is the snowball effect. The melting of sea ice is accelerated by the snowball effect. Water heats up faster than ice from the sun’s rays. Consequently, once some leads (breaks in the ice where sea water is open to the sun) open, the increased warmth of the water melts more ice, this opens more leads which causes more melting and so on. Another snowball effect happens right under our noses when after a big-prolonged snowfall, the snow begins to melt during sunny days. Unfortunately, with our warmer winters this is something that our kids might not ever experience. Dirty snow warms up faster than clean snow. As the snow melts the dirt on the surface keeps falling on the snow below. Consequently, the dirtier the snow becomes the more it melts and the more it melts the dirtier it becomes and so on until it is totally melted.

It’s one thing to recognize the snowball effects in the weather and another matter to intervene in this process to change the outcome. There have been attempts at hail suppression for many years including through the present year, but so far there is no proof that it is effective. This is because the energy in even a hailstorm is biblical in proportion and this makes it hard to intervene in the physical processes that this energy drives. However, there is the snowball effect in human interactions that we can do something about if we can recognize the snowball effect before it spirals out of control. I’ll give three examples. One happens in a society wide scale and requires an intervention on the same scale. Another takes place in the entertainment industry and the third in our own families.

To understand the society-wide snowball effect we should think about the transition from hunter gatherers to the domestication of wild plants and animals. When we were hunter gatherers, we lived in small groups, not in organized towns. Each family group oversaw the providing food for that family, even the head of the collection of families (the chief in some cultures) had to provide for his own family. With the domestication of wild plants and animals some families could grow more than they needed to eat. A variety of reasons might have given some families a leg up. They might have had more fertile land to farm, or they might have had more or heartier children, or gotten more land through a good marriage. Once that family grew more than they needed they could use the excess to but more land and pay people to farm it. Eventually that family could use animals to clear and farm more land, leading to greater wealth. The snowball effect is that making money leads to making more money which in turn helps to make more money and in turn — and so on, until the wealth of a country is concentrated in a small percentage of the population. This society wide snowball effect has happened repeatedly throughout history with the result being some type of revolution either peaceful or violent. In England, the accumulation of wealth in a few large estates was broken up by the introduction of steep inheritance taxes while the grip of the few on the many led to violence in Russia.

In the 1950s and early 1960s my family, on just the income of my blue-collar father, enjoyed a middle-class life with a car, a home, and yearly vacations. Today, with a similar blue-collar income both my father and mother would have to work. What happened? The gross national product per person in 1960 according to the World Bank national accounts data, and OECD National Accounts data files was about $3,000 in today’s dollars. In 2021 that figure was about $70,000. Everyone contributes to the wealth of the USA but how did it become so lopsided that now a current family like our 1950s family would have to work twice as hard to enjoy the same standard of living? The answer is the snowball effect of wealth. Another important factor in the accumulation of wealth is the ability for the wealthy to use the extra money to lobby for government policies that help to retain their wealth. This also aids this snowball wealth effect. The most effective way to stop this snowball wealth effect is through taxation. Think about this snowball wealth effect when you vote. Does the person you vote for favor tax breaks for the 1% or for the 90% of us who have mostly missed out on most of the wealth the USA has produced. One good argument against the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few is the flaky behavior of Elon Musk.

In the entertainment industry there also is a snowball effect. Once a mostly young director produces a movie hit money starts to flow into their next movie. This extra money makes it possible to make an even bigger hit and so on leading to very expensive block buster movies such as “Avatar, the Way of Water.” This snowball effect can be a good thing as it leads to spectacular movies, but it also takes money away from other deserving directors who might make, while not blockbusters, worthwhile enjoyable movies. This snowball effect is hard to mitigate as it is driven by the money to be made more than the quality of the movie.

Finally, this last snowball effect in families is one we can individually intervene in if we recognize it is happening. This snowball effect starts with an unkind remark to a partner. Unfortunately, most often such a remark is the genesis for a similar unkind remark directed back. And so it goes until it snowballs into mutual dislike instead of mutual respect and love. One or both partners must see this snowball effect happening in order to break this cycle of recrimination. While we can’t individually change tax laws or influence the making of movies, we certainly have control over that we say to our partner. We just must be aware of this recrimination snowball effect even when we are in the middle of it in order to stop it.

There are many more snowball effects in the weather and in our life. It is hard to stop a weather snowball effect even if we can recognize it, but snowball effects in our life or even society-wide can be interrupted if we have the will to do it.