TCS Daily

The Weather Channel Goes Hollywood

By Sallie Baliunas - June 1, 2004 12:00 AM

The opening of a big-budget weather-horror movie, The Day After Tomorrow, has the Weather Channel going Hollywood. Highlighted in the film, The Weather Channel now seeks the limelight by running a series on extreme weather, to be broadcast the week of the movie's release.

Meanwhile, the science journal Nature is urging climate researchers to grab a spotlight for themselves, in a May 6 editorial asserting:

"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 education is the basis for the movie, according to its director, Roland Emmerich, so that the movie's message -- bleak ending included -- would raise fears of the elevated concentration of carbon dioxide in the air. Emmerich, (Spiegel Online, April 26), "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 warming, presumably pushed by the air's increased carbon dioxide content and other greenhouse gases in the air. Then, poof! Several days later the Gulf Stream currents cease bringing warmth from the tropics to Europe and North America to entomb civilization in icy heaves. Pour on tsunamis, floods and tornadoes to what is supposed to be science education for the public.

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

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 shown a seesaw pattern during the last million years between cold glacial and warm interglacial periods. Glacial periods have persisted 80 percent of the time, with average global temperatures 15 degrees F colder than now and continent-sized ice sheets inundating 30 percent of the land. The last persisted from 100,000 years ago to approximately 11,000 years ago, when the modern thriving interglacial period began. It will end within the next several thousand years. The previous interglacial whiff of warmth -- the warmer Eemian interval -- lasted less than 20,000 years.

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 speculation that the Gulf Stream's flow of warm water to high Northern latitudes would weaken or cease was carried in the United Nations' Third Assessment Report (2001) of climate science. But even as the UN report neared completion, the physics and computational aspects of ocean models improved enough to rule out the shutdown of the Gulf Stream -- the anchoring "science" of the move -- even with a doubling of CO2[S1]

Why such stability? The primary sources of the energy to drive the Gulf Stream from surface winds, driven by the earth's spin, and the gravitational pull of an alien body, the moon. As MIT ocean physicist Carl Wunsch stated in Nature (April 8):

"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, there 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.

We await the channel-surfing public to become familiarized with the intricacies of the Pleistocene ice age and ocean currents, delivered -- oops, seized --by Nature's activist hordes through the idiosyncrasies of chatty sound-byte television. And we will watch wonderingly at the gyres as The Weather Channel at the same time promotes a film with ludicrous science while sculpting its own scientific objectivity.


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