TCS Daily

The Day After "The Day After Tomorrow"

By Robert C. Balling - May 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Everyone loves to talk about the weather, and leave it to Hollywood to capitalize on our fascination with the atmosphere. Some of the greatest movie scenes of all times have featured incredible lightning, hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes, blizzards, floods, dust storms, heat waves, and every conceivable (and inconceivable) perfect and imperfect storm. Kevin Costner's 1995 Waterworld warned of a sweltering world of rising seas and reduced land areas thanks to elevated levels of greenhouse gases. But now, Hollywood has decided to entertain (or scare) us with a fascinating twist to the global warming apocalypse -- this time around, our greenhouse gases cause a disruption to ocean currents, and the Earth abruptly plunges into unthinkable meteorological calamities and an immediate ice age.

In many respects, the latest cinematic addition to the greenhouse legacy mirrors the mood swings in the scientific community. Only 25 years ago, Newsweek presented an article entitled "The Cooling World" in which we were warned in the first sentence:

"There are ominous signs that the earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production-with serious political implications for just about every nation on earth."

Since then, catastrophic predictions have appeared regarding "Nuclear Winter," a climate collapse following the Kuwait oil fires, global warming, and now, climate freezing due to global warming. You must wonder if the community of climate scientists was behind the Y2K scare as well?

Anything is possible, so enjoy the latest movie. Of course, anything was possible in movies featuring Earth being saved from meteors, space aliens, deadly bacteria, evil villains, and anything else the imagination of a billion dollar industry can concoct. Super-heroes saving the Earth makes for a great storyline, especially in the summer and Christmas blockbuster movie super seasons.

Not to spoil the fun, but here are some facts regarding the "science" behind "The Day After Tomorrow." It is true that some theoretical climate models predict that the thermohaline circulation (the Gulf Stream is part of this global oceanic conveyer belt) will be impacted by additional fresh water pouring into the North Atlantic from melting ice and increased discharge from major rivers. However, other models predict a strengthening of the Gulf Stream with increased heat energy being pumped into the North Atlantic. Either scenario takes decades-to-centuries to be realized, not a few days.

Some evidence certainly exists that the climate system changed abruptly thousands of years ago over the time span of decades. Those swings occurred when concentrations of greenhouse gases were much lower than the levels observed today, and those gyrations are not simulated by existing climate models. It is very possible that higher levels of greenhouse gases will protect us from these fantastic swings in climate, just as higher levels of greenhouse gases may protect us from the next ice age due in a few thousand years.

"The Day After Tomorrow" requires substantial changes in climate to precede an immediate collapse of the climate system, most notably, a significant rise in global temperature. The near-surface thermometer records around the globe show a warming of approximately 0.7°C (1.3°F) since 1900, but the thermometer record is severely compromised by changes in measurement equipment, urban growth around weather stations, and the lack of coverage over enormous areas of the Earth. Satellite-based sensors are able to peer-down and very accurately measure the temperature of the low atmosphere for the entire planet, and they have observed little warming since they became operational in 1978. Weather balloons are launched daily at sites around the world, and their temperature record is in near-perfect agreement with the satellite-based dataset. We need to see a lot more warming before any climate rubber band can snap and the system goes haywire.

In some eyes in the theater, the movie will be a call to arms to do something about global warming -- can the movie revive the all-but-dead Kyoto Protocol? If you have forgotten, the Kyoto Protocol aimed at stabilizing emissions of greenhouse gases, not their concentrations in the atmosphere. Even if the magic wand of Kyoto could stabilize carbon dioxide emissions today (and Kyoto seeks to stabilize emissions to 1990 levels), we would continue to pump billions of tons of these gases into the atmosphere each year, and we would still achieve a doubling of concentrations somewhere near the middle of this century. The Kyoto Protocol would have little impact on greenhouse gas concentrations, and the climate impact would be undetectable for many decades to come. Of course, the undesirable economic impacts of the Protocol would be easily detected immediately. It is a classic case of all pain, no gain; high economic costs and zero climate impacts suffer from an indefensible cost/benefit ratio.

Therein lies the theme for a new blockbuster also called "The Day After Tomorrow." The United States adopts the Kyoto Protocol and the immediate economic impacts plunge us and the world into a depression of biblical proportions! Hollywood will have a problem warming up to that script far too close to reality.


TCS Daily Archives