Half a century ago, MIT meteorology professor Edward Lawrenz postulated that if a butterfly flaps its wings, it could eventually trigger a tornado. The notion, known as the “butterfly effect”, was intended to illustrate how chain reactions in nature can be triggered by unexpected events or phenomena, with unknown consequences.
Lawrenz would have found a great case study for his work this week on events that began with a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific and led to dramatic results – political, social and economic – far away in Peru.
Ten days ago, a volcano at the bottom of the sea exploded near the island of Tonga. The eruption was dramatic and spectacularly devastating for the small island, wiping out entire villages and crushing infrastructure in a country of just 105,000 people. Immediately after, several countries issued alerts to warn their populations of possible tsunamis, including Ecuador and Chile, Peru’s neighbors to the north and south, more than 6,500 miles from Tonga. The Peruvian authorities, however, declared that there was no risk of a tsunami. Nevertheless, a few hours after the explosion, large waves pushed on the coasts of Peru, killing at least two Peruvian women who were swept out to sea.
That alone would have added to the troubles of the country’s embattled president, Pedro Castillo. But what happened next in a town called Ventanilla, near the port city of Callao, sparked another series of events with even bigger consequences for Peru’s politics, businesses and livelihoods.
On January 15, the day of the eruption, Italian oil tanker Mare Dorium was at La Pampilla de Ventanilla refinery unloading its cargo of Brazilian crude at a facility owned by Spanish oil giant Repsol. There were no official reports of a problem until the next day when Repsol said a minimal amount of oil, seven gallons, had been spilled into the ocean. This turned out to be terribly inaccurate. It is now estimated that 6,000 barrels of oil – over a quarter of a million gallons – have been spilled, producing a massive oil slick visible at sea. Soon birds heavily coated in oil began to wash up dead or to fly ashore while struggling to flap overloaded wings. Peruvian officials said the thick, sticky oil was approaching some 200,000 square feet of beach, even as it polluted an ocean vital to Peruvians and the Peruvian economy.
The events following the Tonga disaster remind us how unpredictable the course of history can be.
The Italian company that owns the tanker later explained that the abrupt ocean movement caused by the volcanic eruption had caused a rupture of the terminal’s underwater pipeline. He explained that the crew on board noticed the oil stain and immediately closed all valves to minimize spills. But the damage was well underway and it soon became clear that the efforts of Repsol and the Peruvian government to contain the damage were absurdly insufficient compared to the scale of the challenge.
Thousands of Peruvians make their living fishing in the now heavily polluted waters and tending to tourists who frequent the beaches, livelihoods now under threat. The spill also threatened a series of nature reserves near the Peruvian coast, where the cool waters of the Humboldt Current are home to Humboldt penguins, red-legged cormorants and other rare species. The stream is also filled with anchovies and other fish, which are not only important for the country’s vast fishmeal industry, but also provide food for a large number of birds, of which the Peruvians harvest the guano to sell and use as organic fertilizer.
In the absence of a vigorous official emergency response, local residents moved to clean up the beaches with their own hands, and street protesters began to castigate Repsol, with some calling on it to leave Peru. Perhaps inspired by the latter, Castillo took a confrontational approach to the oil giant. On Wednesday, four days after the spill, the Foreign Office said it was the worst environmental disaster in recent times, demanding via Twitter that Repsol immediately provide compensation, as images of the beaches grew more more terrifying.
Eventually, public outcry pressured the Castillo administration to take more dramatic action. A week after the volcano erupted, it declared a state of emergency, with rhetoric calibrated to respond to accusations of incompetence and inaction. The government pleaded for help from the United Nations and the United States, and Castillo, whose approval rating is now just 28%, went to an oil-blackened beach, where he declared the incident an “ecocide” of historic proportions and announced that Peru was “preparing criminal, civil and administrative sanctions”. Authorities said Repsol could face huge fines.
Peruvian authorities accuse Repsol of not alerting authorities to the spill in a timely manner and of downplaying its scale when it did. Undoubtedly aware that environmental damage gives ammunition to opponents of multinational firms in Peru and abroad, Repsol has tried to defend itself. The company’s communications manager in Lima, Tine van den Wall Bake, says the company “is not the cause of the ecological disaster” and says the oil was not immediately visible, s being deposited at the bottom of the sea before emerging the next day.
The massive eruption of an underwater volcano is not a flapping butterfly. But the series of events that followed the Tonga disaster, after its shockwaves rippled halfway around the world, serve as a reminder of how unpredictable the course of history can be. But then, given that the world is still grappling with the aftermath of a microscopic virus that emerged in China two years ago, it’s safe to say that Lawrenz would have an easier time defending his theory today than half a century ago.
Frida Ghitis is a columnist on world affairs. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. His WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.