Big-Budget Hollywood Movie Is a Science Travesty

Published August 1, 2004

Even the Weather Channel has gone Hollywood.

Highlighted in the big-budget weather-horror movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” the Weather Channel recently sought even further limelight by running a series on extreme weather, which began broadcast the week of the movie’s release.

Meanwhile, the science journal Nature urged climate researchers to grab some of the spotlight for themselves, in a May 6 editorial:

“Advocates of responsible behavior must seize every opportunity to get their message across, such as the forthcoming ice-age blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow. … Climatologists will criticize the faulty science on which the movie is based, but it will allow them to raise citizen’s awareness … and … to heighten carbon consciousness. … Climate researchers should contact local media, who will seize the chance to trade on a disaster movie. …”

Science Shows There’s Little to Fear

Science education is the basis for the movie, according to its director, Roland Emmerich, who expressed hope the film’s message–bleak ending included–would raise fears of the elevated concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air. On April 26, the German news portal Spiegel Online quoted Emmerich as saying, “I went very far in order to provide viewers with lots of scientific information.”

The movie shows northern ice sheets melting and diluting the oceans’ saltiness, all as a result of global warming presumably caused by the air’s increased carbon dioxide content and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Days later, according to the movie, Gulf Stream currents cease bringing warmth from the tropics to Europe and North America, thereby entombing civilization in icy heaves. Emmerich’s science education for the public includes spectacular tsunamis, floods, and tornadoes.

Please! We are missing the real drama here, which is how climate researchers and the Weather Channel can embark on risky schemes to promote a movie based, as Nature acknowledged, on “faulty science” without undercutting the movie or being laughed back to reality.

Renewed Ice Age Due Soon

Truly helpful science commentary would start by first explaining that the climate has been in an ice age for two million years or more.

The Pleistocene, as the most recent of four major ice ages in 500 million years is called, has exhibited a seesaw pattern during the last million years, fluctuating between cold glacial and warm interglacial periods. Glacial periods have persisted 80 percent of the time, with average global temperatures 15º F colder than now and continent-sized ice sheets engulfing 30 percent of the land. The last such glacial period persisted from 100,000 years ago to approximately 11,000 years ago, when the modern, thriving interglacial period began. This warmer era will end within the next several thousand years. The previous interglacial whiff of warmth–the warmer Eemian interval–lasted less than 20,000 years.

Gulf Stream Not Threatened

Good science commentary also would explain what is known or unknown about Atlantic currents, especially as a result of increased CO2 concentration in the air.

The Third Assessment Report (2001) released by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change speculated that the Gulf Stream’s flow of warm water to high northern latitudes would weaken or cease. But even as the U.N. report neared completion, the physics and computational aspects of ocean models had improved enough to rule out the shutdown of the Gulf Stream–the anchoring “science” of the move–even with a doubling of atmospheric CO2. The Gulf Stream has such stability because the primary sources of energy driving it come from surface winds, the Earth’s spin, and the gravitational pull of an alien body, the moon. As MIT ocean physicist Carl Wunsch stated in the April 8 issue of Nature,

“European readers should be reassured that the Gulf Stream’s existence is a consequence of the large-scale wind system over the North Atlantic Ocean, and of the nature of fluid motions on a rotating planet. The only way to produce an ocean circulation without a Gulf Stream is either to turn off the wind system, or to stop the Earth’s rotation, or both.”

Now that would be a storyline to produce a thrilling, end-of-the world adventure filled with high-tech special effects. To borrow, as Emmerich did, from another movie, it could be titled, “The Day After the Earth Stood Still.”

In the meantime, the movie-going, channel-surfing public will have to find another way to become familiar with the intricacies of the Pleistocene ice age and ocean currents–listening to Nature‘s activist hordes through the idiosyncrasies of chatty, sound-bite television won’t do it. And we will all watch in wonder while the Weather Channel promotes a film full of ludicrous science myths while trumpeting its own scientific objectivity.

Dr. Sallie Baliunas served as deputy director of Mount Wilson Observatory and as senior scientist at the George C. Marshall Institute in Washington, DC. She chairs the institute’s Science Advisory Board and is a former contributing editor to World Climate Report. Her email address is [email protected].