The 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, depicts a changing world where global warming triggers a worldwide superstorm that unleashes unimaginable weather forces. Hail larger than tennis balls pounds Tokyo, tornados strip Los Angeles and tsunamis and blizzard move across New York within a couple of days. But could this really happen? Why has the film been vigorously criticised by climate scientists and what made Dr. Andrew Weaver, Canada’s top climate modeller, claim that,
“the science-fiction movie The Day After Tomorrow creatively violates every known law of thermodynamics”
For those who haven’t seen it, here is the trailer so you can quickly catch up on what the film is about:
Like most science fiction films, The Day after Tomorrow is based on some scientific facts. It is becoming more accepted that the climate is changing due to human influences and the present day climate is not ‘normal’ or stable. But how much of the film is fact and how much is fiction?
A new Ice age?
The film starts with a dramatic scientific discovery of evidence of a previously unknown Ice-age where Mammoths were frozen within minutes ten thousand years ago. The protagonist, Jack, explains that this is due to a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation (a global ocean circulation as seen in the image below). This stopped warm water travelling past northern Europe causing a sudden cooling in this area. This event is portrayed with some accuracy; a sudden change did occur ten thousand years ago; scientists call this period the Younger Dryas. Cooling promoted expansion of the glaciers. The ice reflected more sunlight hence triggering more cooling. However, orbital changes eventually overpowered the cooling and we entered the current interglacial period.
But you will be relieved to know that a sudden global warming-induced climate shift could not cause the kind of instant wild weather that was depicted in the movie. But in their defence, is the speed of climate change too slow and boring for Hollywood? After all, who wants to sit in front of a TV and watch a glacier melt over 100 years?
Super StormThe formation of a super storm as depicted in The Day After Tomorrow is a meteorological impossibility. Why? Let’s find out;
- My favourite example is of the helicopters freezing in mid-air and crashing. This was as a result of vast quantities of cold air from the upper atmosphere sinking down to the surface. Any high school student could tell you that air warms as it descends so this couldn’t actually happen. One scientist tries to explain this to Jack in the movie, “But wouldn’t the air warm as it descents?” But Jack replies, “No, it’s moving too fast!”. The Ideal Gas Law that explains air warms as it descends is true no matter how fast the air is descending.
- With a sigh of relief, I can also say with confidence (after much reading) that thunderstorms cannot merge together to form a global scale thunderstorm. Also, large storms require the eye to be over ocean waters and not land.
- Finally, the super storm is depicted as rotating clockwise in some scenes and counter-clockwise in some! I actually find this a hilarious error and another reason why the director probably should have hired a climate scientist. Just to clarify, all storms in the Northern Hemisphere rotate counter-clockwise thanks to the physics of a rotating Earth
The Domino Effect
The film is based on the Earth’s systems changing in a non-linear and abrupt fashion. This kind of transition is known to scientists as Tipping Points and there is a significant amount of literature on the topic. International studies suggest that for many of the climate systems change occurs in a non-linear transition or a like a game of dominos. Without a force, all stand tall and proud. But, as soon as one becomes unbalanced the whole system abruptly changes. This means that at a critical point in time a tiny change could significantly alter the state of a system like that observed in the film but even tipping points wouldn’t cause changes within hours.
So, like I did, enjoy the special effects and the dramatic storyline but don’t take the movie too seriously. It is science Fiction. In saying that, I would recommend you ponder on the precautionary nature of the film as you drive home in your fossil-fuel guzzling vehicle. After all, although the massive global storms might not be a possible the impact that humans are having on the environment is very much a reality and should be taken seriously.
Do you think that films should take climate change more seriously and depict it without so many scientific errors? Do errors in the film make you more or less likely to take climate change seriously? Or maybe you have an idea for a Hollywood film on Climate Change? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.
For more information on Tipping points here are some interesting scholarly literature articles:
ROCKSTRÖM, J et al. 2009. Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity, Ecology and Society 14.
LENTON, T. M., HELD, H., KRIEGLER, E., HALL, J. W., LUCHT, W., RAHMSTORF, S. & SCHELLNHUBER, H. J. 2008. Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 1786-1793.
LINDSAY, R. W. & ZHANG, J. 2005. The Thinning of Arctic Sea Ice, 1988–2003: Have We Passed a Tipping Point? Journal of Climate, 18, 4879-4894.