Theres Got to Be a Morning After
Scientists have a respectable if spotty history of forecasting nature. Eclipses and El Nios no longer surprise us. We certainly would have forecast Earth's embarrassing Antarctic ozone hole if someone like Jack Hall were paying attention. The climatologist, played by Dennis Quaid in Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow, is the prodigal Hollywood scientist: he turns scant data into glitch-free global forecasts, he shoots his mouth off at his slow-but-well-meaning bosses, and his altruistic research assistants are willing to die for him.
Hall is surprised to see his predictions of abrupt climate change turn true in days rather than centuries when a series of weather catastrophes suddenly strikes him, his family and, incidentally, all species on Earth. He knows the gases humans (not to mention cows) release warmed Earth about one degree last century. The intrepid scientist vainly advocates adopting emissions controls like the Kyoto Protocol, a Gas-X treaty for flatulent industrial nations. Uncowed by the sallow U.S. vice president or by clichs, Hall shouts, "If we don't act now, it will be too late!"
Unfortunately, the laconic cast ignores this advice. Like when Hall's hypothermic son receives an impromptu chest-to-chest thaw job from his love interest, she asks, "How are you feeling?"
"Better," he deadpans.
Emmerich adorns this disaster-rescue flick with a multimillion-dollar miracle bra of special effects to support the saggy screenplay and flat acting. An astronaut and cosmonaut onboard the space station aptly dispense the obligatory disaster-links-humanity theme by watching cyclones pinwheel across international boundaries. In my favorite scene, a reporter covering the tornadic erasure of Los Angeles (Sodom to New York's Gomorrah) is flattened by a loose ad billboard and is borne to what can only be a kinder media market. The gratuitous fly-throughs of the sinuous twisters feel like meteorological pornography.
Climate researchers and politicians will recognize themselves in this movie. More impressive (and scary) is the scientific plausibility. Emmerich's premise is that glacial melt can stall the oceanic heat-conveyor belt (e.g., the Gulf Stream) that helps keep the Northeast and Europe snowshoe-free most of the year. Climatologists are accumulating circumstantial evidence that the North Atlantic is an accomplice, if not the culprit, to rapid climate change. Storm chasers know the movie's killer hail is only half the size of the record seven-inch ice cantaloupes that bomb the Midwest U.S. Emmerich does violate Nature's Laws with impunity (cold stratospheric air would fry your huevos if you compressed it to sea-level pressure), having calibrated audience disbelief in Independence Day.
Emmerich's contrived weather extremes conceal a profound truth about climate. Earth's surface temperature is only about 15 (not 150) degrees warmer today than during the last ice age. The difference between ice ages and equable climates correspond to carbon dioxide changes far less than humans will cause this century. Global warming of 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 appears inevitable without Kyoto-like emissions constraints. New Yorkers should expect a 21st Century of record-breaking temperatures and mugginess. I suspect many would prefer the movie's flash-freezing to reality.
Charlie Zender is a UC Irvine Earth System Science assistant professor who thinks global warming is bad news for penguins and those who love them.
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