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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/13/2010

Atmosphere's revenge? Monarchs in short supply

By Steve Tracton

Butterflies battered by Mother Nature

* Cool showers, then warm-up: Full Forecast | Radar: Weather Wall *

Photo of a monarch butterfly. By Kenneth Dwain Harrelson; acquired from Wikipedia

I've written previously on the Butterfly Effect, wherein the proverbial flapping of a butterfly's wings over, say, Mexico, might start a chain reaction of events in the atmosphere eventually impacting the weather at a later time over, say, Washington, D.C. The flapping wings, at least symbolically, represent the small uncertainties (errors) in the initial conditions fed into forecast models, which grow chaotically (unpredictably) as models predict further and further into the future, thereby limiting the temporal range of useful weather predictions.

Perhaps, as suggested (mostly in jest), real butterflies are more to blame for forecast busts than the oft standard cry: "The models blew it." Even if this were true, it's not likely to apply this spring. Normally this time of year, millions of real-life monarch butterflies are migrating from their winter haunts in Mexico toward the northern U.S. and Canada. This year, however, it seems the atmosphere has taken revenge by devastating the butterflies' winter sanctuary in the mountains of Mexico.

During the normally dry and warm month of February, up to 15 inches of precipitation battered the monarchs' habitats with heavy rain, snow, sleet and freezing rain (likely related to El Nino). Estimates are that up to half the monarch population perished (see here and here).

Moreover, monarchs were already in decline due to deforestation and loss of food supply (milkweed) in the U.S. and Mexico, thus limiting the number of butterflies returning to Mexico in the fall. Not incidentally, it will likely be harder this fall than in past falls for those inspired by Ann Posegate's previous post (on monarch life cycle, annual migrations and sightings) to spot monarchs passing through the area.

So, will the monarch shortage mean more reliable forecasts by computer weather models? Don't count on it. Even if the impact of flapping butterfly wings on model predictability were assumed more literal than symbolic, there would remain many more and significant sources of initial condition errors (uncertainties), which forever will limit the accuracy and range of weather predictions.

On the other hand, even if the near impossibility of monarchs actually contributing noticeably to forecast error could be demonstrated, I for one would wish no harm to these beautiful creatures. Hopefully their populations will make a comeback. To this end, Mark Taylor, director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, is urging people to plant milkweed across the country, especially in the southern U.S., as a "lifeline" for the butterflies during their exhausting migration.

By Steve Tracton  | April 13, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nature, Tracton  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Forecast: Cool & damp then warming back up
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Dr. Tracton wrote, "Perhaps, as suggested (mostly in jest), real butterflies are more to blame for forecast busts than the oft standard cry: "The models blew it.""

Only "mostly" in jest? Not entirely in jest?

I for one sincerely hope you meant entirely in jest.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 13, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I believe the West Coast monarchs overwinter somewhere near Monterey in California.

Do all the eastern monarchs overwinter in the Mexican area or is there a separate area in peninsular Florida?

Posted by: Bombo47jea | April 13, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Q: your posts are always negative. can't you just accept the article for what it is. why do you even read and post to this site if you complain every time? get a life.

Posted by: runningrat11 | April 13, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse


I read this particular article because of the title, "Atmosphere's revenge? Monarchs in short supply"

Notice how he put it out as a question - Is it the atmosphere's revenge against the monarch? I find the subject of pantheism absolutely riveting. I will spare you my thoughts on it and the people who believe it.

But to answer your question, that is why I read this particular article. The title and my fascination with pantheism.

I was looking for some sort of explanation to the question posed in the title, "Atmosphere's revenge?" when I stumbled across the sentence that I quoted in my first comment. I must admit it knocked me back. So much so that I had to comment. And to be honest, I think that if that sentence doesn't scream out to you, that says more about you than me.

And no, you are mistaken. My comments are not entirely negative. I have paid my share of compliments towards some of the incredible photography here.

I check the site to balance out the one sided commentary that Mr. Freedman posts. But for that, I wouldn't even check here. And trust me when I say that every fiber in my being longs to do other things with my extremely valuable time.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 13, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

I did mean, not entirely in jest

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | April 13, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

SteveT wrote, "I did mean, not entirely in jest"

You did mean what?

mostly in jest

entirely in jest


not entirely in jest

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 13, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse


When I lived in Monterey, CA the Monarchs would show up in all their splendor in October. They didn't hang around long, so I presume they were on their way to Mexico. I don't know about FL.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | April 13, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

just as I said in comment: "not entirely in jest". It might have been better in text to say this rather than "mostly in jest"

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | April 13, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

The number of monarch sightings in Texas this spring is about the same as in previous years
which cast major doubt on the claim that
"50% of the butterflies perished due to storms in Mexico" last winter:

Also, there have been no news articles or scientific reports that showed photos of masses of dead butterflies on the ground in Mexico, which casts even more doubt on the claim that "50% of the butterflies perished"

Posted by: PaulCherubini | April 13, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

This is just a ploy by Big Milkweed to get us to buy their product.

Posted by: theguapo | April 13, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

As of December, the Monarch populations in Mexico were at their lowest in several years (see graph from Journey North - a citizen science project that monitors Monarchs). That was before the February storms in Mexico.

Monarchs are very sensitive to temperature and precipitation during winter. They winter over in California, Mexico and Florida (map).

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | April 13, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Monarchs are handsome butterflies... hopefully they'll be back in force. The undersides of their wings look yellow compared with the bright orange shown in the topside photo. If interested, here's a picture of a monarch chrysalis I took last fall.

Posted by: spgass1 | April 13, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

We live on the outer crust of a molten rock hurling through space at 66,000 miles per hour and spinning at about 1,000 MPH. It isn't the safest place to be... just the safest we have at present...Don't understand why some people can't just live with that reality. ;-)


Posted by: zigszag | April 13, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

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