When Weather (and Science) Goes Bad

May 27, 2004
by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

Lets face it; a lot of the population west of the Hudson River figures that New York has it coming. And in the latest Hollywood disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow, the Big Apple really takes it on the chin. In a matter of days, the city is converted into an open-air meat locker, as Mother Earth demands payback for decades of environmental abuse.

First, a Noachian rainstorm floods the subways, stalls traffic, and sends residents scrambling up the stairs. Then a tidal wave roars through the city like freshly squeezed Godzilla. The audience shovels popcorn as New York takes a briny bath; but maybe it isnt so bad -- Gotham could probably use a scouring.

Sure, but thats just a prelude. The real problem begins when a giant, cyclonic storm system, thousands of miles in size, decks the continent like a white shitake mushroom and burps cold air onto the Northeast. Temperatures plummet, and a NASA researcher exclaims "theres a temperature drop in New York of 10 degrees per second!" Catch that? Sounds like another NASA units problem. After all, if the mercury really fell that fast, the Big Apple would hit absolute zero within a minute.

But quantitative quibbles aside, its a chilling sight to see an ice age hit the northern hemisphere in less time than it takes to freeze a quart of chicken soup. Yes, we know New York has a bulls eye painted on it somewhere: the city has been cinematically victimized by malevolent aliens, wayward rocks, and supersized prehistoric reptiles. A lot of that is nonsense, but The Day After Tomorrow is predicated on the effects of global warming. And lets be honest here: carbon dioxide levels are rising. This time its not bad cosmic karma thats doing in the Big Apple. Its SUVs belching their way through the heartland.

So are the ice ages really coming back? Is the island of Manhattan destined to look like it did twelve thousand years ago, suitable only for polar bears and Zamboni machines?

Well, the climatology experts have no problem with the chain of events portrayed in the film, at least up to a point. It happens like this: global warming melts glaciers, which pour more fresh water into the seas. The change in salinity reaches a "tipping point" that disrupts the conveyor belt of ocean currents (including the Gulf Stream) that bring warmth from the equatorial regions to northern latitudes. The weather goes nuts.

Stephen Schneider, a Stanford University climatologist and a scientist who has testified to Congress and several occasionally interested presidents about what could happen, notes that the severity and the suddenness of the films malevolent meteorology are offbase. "All our models tell us that this sort of scenario would take 100 years or more to develop, even if global warming continues. And that tidal wave? Where did that come from?"

In other words, it wouldnt happen that fast, and it wouldnt be quite so dramatic in the short term. "Sure, the first cold snap could happen soon, but then there might be periods of respite. And dont worry about overnight ice sheets: glaciers take a thousand years to build up." Furthermore, Schneider says that were talking about the possibility of localized bad weather -- the whole Northern Hemisphere isnt going to suddenly resemble the surface of Europa.

OK, the film may exaggerate a bit. But this is a movie, after all, and director Roland Emmerich is expert at keeping you velcroed to your seat. Hes savvy enough to avoid wasting a lot of setup time on the wobbly science, and gets right to the action. New York suffers the brunt of the front, but even Hollywood is willing to accept some collateral damage. A handful of ugly twisters churn their way through La-La Land, smartly heading for its only major icons: the Capital Records building and the Hollywood sign, invisibly guided by (one assumes) hyperdimensional vortex fields.

As in all good cinema-Sci-fi, theres plenty of metaphorical theft, too. Emmerich reprises Robert F. Scotts 1911 trek to the pole when the films protagonist (played by Dennis Quaid) tries to rescue his stranded son, snowbound in New York. Another nifty sequence follows the escape of some wolves from the zoo. The shivering lupines are understandably peckish, but show an odd preference for live prey, despite a city knee-deep in frosty human carrion. Maybe they just like hot meals, but in any case the wolves will remind you of marauding velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

Theres also an impressive sequence before Manhattan gets iced, as fourteen zillion seagulls crowd the skies (take your umbrella). This feathery foreshadowing is akin to Macbeth, where the animals behave strangely when the great chain of being has been disrupted. The gulls are like sick, coal mine canaries: the air is going bad.

The action is non-stop, its sharp and its impressive. True, the plot wont tax your brain, and the characters arent exactly multidimensional. But hooh-hah, that doesnt matter. You will ruminate all night on the visuals. You will see things on the screen that, well, you better hope you never see. It is the hypnotic beauty of the inconceivably terrible.

Stephen Schneider worries that the exaggerated scenarios and the biblical retribution portrayed in The Day After Tomorrow may encourage the enemies of environmental action to use it as a whipping boy. After all, since the situations depicted in the film are unrealistic, global action to limit automotive and other emissions can be dismissed with a wave and a laugh. Of course, it isnt like that. One generation -- ours -- really can disrupt the Gulf Stream, and the consequences will last for a millennium.

Those SUVs have bad juju.