Turnagain Chaos

Abstract patterns in tidal silt
Abstract patterns in tidal silt along Turnagain Arm

The word chaos is used to evoke situations of confusion, disorder, randomness and unpredictability. In the 1980s, chaos took on an expanded meaning as scientists developed chaos theory to describe the behavior of complex systems. Governed by nonlinear mathematics, chaos theory describes how minor changes to the initial conditions of a dynamic process can have large consequences. An easily understood analogy of this concept was known as the “butterfly effect,” coined by Edward Lorenz, an early researcher into chaos. The butterfly effect suggests that the flap of a butterfly’s wings could spawn a tornado, or that a butterfly in China could affect the weather in Texas.

As scientists further explored chaos theory, they found a surprising result: phenomena governed by nonlinear mathematics could display a level of order among the chaotic, and that the order could repeat itself from large scale to small scale. This was manifested in the beautiful art of fractals and Mandelbrot sets. James Gleick, in his 1987 bestseller, Chaos; Making a New Science, described in layman’s terms the science of chaos theory. Whether we know it or not, nature photographers are first-hand observers and recorders of chaos theory! It turns out that inanimate and animate objects like clouds, tree branches and the leaves of a tree, mountain ridges, cracks in mud, river braiding, flocks of birds and insects, are all examples of order within seeming disorder. In 1990, Gleick teamed up with the legendary photographer, Eliot Porter, to document Nature’s Chaos.

Alaskan photographers will recognize the artistic and elegant designs of glacial silt in tidal areas left behind by the receding tide. The opening photo is a small section of the tidal flats that extended for hundreds of yards on Turnagain Arm near Twenty Mile River. It is amazing how the regular, yet random lapping of waves as the tide ebbs and flows created a beautiful, abstract pattern of the tidal mud. That regularity is yet another example of chaos theory in nature. Upon closer inspection – by zooming into the photo – we see that the regularity of the patterns extends to a scale down to inches rather than feet or yards!

Closeup of tidal silt patterns
Closeup of Tidal Silt Patterns

As children we were taught to stay out of the mud lest we track it into the house. Ostensibly I was on the mudflats to photograph bald eagles feeding on hooligans. As I walked along, my mind wrestled with time spent to get “good” eagle shots versus doing something else. Eventually, I slowed down enough to fully see and appreciate what was underneath and before me. As Porter observed in the foreword to Nature’s Chaos, nature manifests a tension between order and chaos. My challenge to you is to find other examples of chaos theory in nature by slowing down and looking closely. I’d love to see what you find!

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