A note to the reader: Certain scenes in the following account have been dramatized, Hollywood-style—entirely made up—but the description of the film, the scientific information and all the quotes are real.
Act 1: HOLLYWOOD
INT. MOVIE THEATER—NIGHT OF MAY 28, 2004
Camera pans a series of faces busy munching popcorn, slurping sodas, etc. Camera then rests on you, the SKEPTICAL MOVIEGOER. Your eyes roll during the previews of the space battles—
SKEPTIC: C’mon. You can’t hear explosions in the vacuum of space. . . .
And then the feature begins. It’s called The Day After Tomorrow, and it’s a spectacular disaster flick, obviously the gleeful product of someone who has thought far too much about the mechanics of global catastrophe. On screen, a climactic upheaval is brewing. Electrical storms lace the sky over New Delhi while hail pummels Tokyo. A lone paleoclimatologist scrambles to warn the world about impending disaster, yet he is too late: In Southern California, tornadoes dismantle the Hollywood sign and most of downtown Los Angeles. A massive storm surge crashes through Manhattan, followed by wind so cold people freeze to the sidewalks. Chaos follows: world-pounding, civilization-scattering chaos, all thanks to a glitch in the weather.
Camera whips back to the Skeptical Moviegoer’s face: The smirk is gone. Destruction depicted this vividly can have that effect. But more: The Moviegoer vaguely recalls that the concept of abrupt climate change served up in the film was recently on the front pages—courtesy of the Pentagon, no less—and that story didn’t have a happy ending, either.
SKEPTIC (eyes darting, feet tapping): This is just Independence Day minus the aliens. Science fiction, weak on the science—right?
FLASHBACK, THREE MONTHS EARLIER: EXT. MOVIE STUDIO—DAY
Camera zooms in on the SKEPTICAL SCIENCE WRITER, as he emerges from an on-lot screening of the film’s rough cut.
WRITER (voiceover): As I emerged from my preview screening into the light of day, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. For certain, flash-frozen pedestrians and tinseltown twisters did not have the ring of plausibility. Climate can’t change in a Hollywood minute.
But still. Ice ages happen. I’d even vaguely heard that they don’t take ages to happen. And so I decided to figure out if there was even a hint of good science in this special-effects extravaganza. And the logical first stop was the director of The Day After Tomorrow. Maybe he’d just grin and agree that the movie is a fun riff on a thin premise: show business.
ROLAND EMMERICH, director and producer of such movies as The Patriot, Independence Day and Godzilla, wheels up in a German supercar the color of a new pistol. Emmerich is handsome, graceful and well-tanned, with a glinting smile and hair that matches his car’s paint job.
INT. BUILDING 29
Emmerich shuts the door of a dimly lit editing room and settles onto a sofa. Writer settles in across from him and prepares to pounce, suspecting that Emmerich’s motivations are more political than scientific, his disaster flick a well-timed swipe at the current administration in an election year.
EMMERICH (with a moderate German accent): Your flight in was OK?
WRITER: Let’s get right to the point, Roland. Your movie purports to be built on a scientific premise, but there’s no way that the climate could change like that in a matter of days. What do you have to say for yourself?
Emmerich proceeds, with disarming candor, to acknowledge the unscientific speed of the movie’s plotline.
EMMERICH: The scientific community will say, “too fast.” And that’s OK. Otherwise there is no movie.
WRITER (voiceover): But that’s as far as he’d budge; he refused to crack on the underlying principle: Abrupt climate change could plunge the planet into an all new ice age, rendering much of it uninhabitable. And when I pushed him on the politics. . . .
EMMERICH: I started writing this script back when I was finishing The Patriot, before Bush was elected. By then it was already too late.
WRITER (voiceover): “Too late”? This guy really seemed to believe that rapid climate change is not only a real threat —it’s inevitable. But I couldn’t be sure that even a well-intentioned Hollywood director could be trusted not to mangle the science, particularly when the god of drama must be served. I needed to consult higher scientific powers. I had to visit the Oracles.
Act 2: SCIENCE
In his quest, Writer seeks three wise men: the ORACLES of WATER, HUMAN LIFE and the FUTURE. Each is a highly respected expert, a leader in his field.
Writer goes in search of the ORACLE OF WATER. Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State, has testified before the U.S. Senate about abrupt climate change, chaired the National Research Council committee on the subject, and is himself a leading real-life paleoclimatologist. He is an expert on ice cores, long tubes of ice dug from glaciers that reveal changes in Earth’s climate over millennia. If anyone knows whether the climate really undergoes such massive shifts, he does.
In the spooky half-light of an Arctic morning, Writer stumbles across the ice, calling to the Oracle. Suddenly, a whirring sound fills the air, becoming a vibration below. Then, with a pop, a spinning figure shoots from the ice, twirling like a mad gopher. As the figure slows we see it is the Oracle, busy drilling ice cores. He speaks.
ALLEY: Hi, it’s Richard Alley.
WRITER: Dr. Alley, I must know: Is the science behind this movie real, despite exaggerations and impossible timelines?
Cut to a montage of shots, in which the Oracle reveals how abrupt climate change works, illustrating his points with magazine-style infographics. (See a copy of the Oracle’s documents on page 61.)
WRITER (voiceover): The Oracle explained that abrupt climate change centers on something called the Great Ocean Conveyor, a loop of current that moves throughout the world’s waters. It keeps much of the Northern Hemisphere toasty by pulling warm tropical water north and pushing cold water south.
He said that when the warm water, which travels on the surface, reaches its northernmost point, near Iceland, it releases its heat into the atmosphere. This heat warms much of the Northern Hemisphere, especially Europe. The now cold water sinks to the ocean bottom—cold water is denser than warm—and this movement, this sinking, drives the entire current: It draws warm water north and shoves cold water south.
The Oracle then went on to show me how, paradoxically, if Earth warms too much, the weather—at least in much of the Northern Hemisphere—will get cold. If global warming proceeds apace, and enough Arctic ice melts, this melted ice—cold, fresh water—will mix with the warm, salty water coming up in the current. Since freshwater is less dense than salty water, the lukewarm, brackish water won’t have any reason to sink, and the engine that powers the ocean current will shut down. Melting Arctic ice could snap the conveyor belt.
The consequences of this shutdown would be sudden and catastrophic: No more heat for Northern Europe or the east coast of North America; they would turn into frigid wastelands. Ocean temperatures would fluctuate dramatically and in turn disrupt weather patterns worldwide (remember El Nio?). Droughts, floods, apocalyptic storms, subarctic temperatures or searing heat become the norm, depending on which unfortunate corner of the globe you happen to call home.
WRITER: So there is some science behind what happens in the movie?
ALLEY: Well, it wouldn’t be anything like in the movie, with people freezing and shattering and such at minus 150