Scientific Movie Critique: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

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The Day After Tomorrow is a 2004 film directed by Roland Emmerich which depicts the earth experiencing a new ice age because of global warming and climate change. The film has been criticised heavily for its scientific inaccuracy since its release, however it was one of the first major film productions of the 21st century to highlight the issue of climate change and a worst case scenario if the global issue isn’t taken seriously. This critique will analysis the scientific validity of the film and conclude whether climate change has been depicted with established science or just another Hollywood production with little legitimacy.

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The movie begins in Antarctica where a paleoclimatologist is drilling ice cores for research purposes and discovers previously unknown scientific evidence of a climate shift which had occurred up to 10 000 years ago. This is the first scientific miscue of the film as ice core data in Antarctica has been extensively studied for decades, and it seems improbable and slightly farfetched that such a recent climatic event (10 000 years) had gone seemingly unnoticed by numerous other scientists. The climatic shift is then explained in the film regarding the Earths recovery from the last glacial period. Where they claim melting ice sheets contributed so much freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean, that patterns in ocean circulation were completely shut down. This led to the Earth experiencing a new ice age, hypothetically due to thermohaline circulation ceasing. Scientifically, the film depicts the events quite accurately, as current research indicates the last glacial period ended around 11, 700 years ago (Alley, 2000) and was very likely caused by the processes described in the film. This period is referred to as the Younger Dryas (Alley et al., 1993). Named after a species of flower whose pollen was preserved in cores discovered from the event, the Younger Dryas has been identified as last period before the interglacial took effect due to ice core data highlighting a rapid decrease in global temperatures around 11, 700 years ago (Severinghaus, 1999).

The leading hypothesis of this major climatic event is broadly reflected in the film, however a more accurate and scientifically supported hypothesis involves the sudden influx of freshwater melting the Laurentide Ice Sheet in North America and flowing into the Atlantic Ocean (Broecker et al., 1989; Muller, 2016). Research by Wallace et al (1989) states this disruption to the North Atlantic circulation most likely caused what is known as North Atlantic deep water formation, an underwater process providing significant amounts of heat to Northern Europe, to completely shut down. Vast areas of regional cooling then began which allowed glaciers within the northern hemisphere to expand, the greater surface area of ice reflected more sunlight and therefore heat, which triggered further cooling due to the ice-albedo feedback (Dahl-Jensen et al., 1987). Within the film, the discovery of the ice core data is presented at a United Nations conference, where climate projections suggest that it is now inevitable a new age ice is about to occur, due to the same pattern occurring in the past. Scientifically, this is considered implausible as no climatic event is ever the same (Weaver, 2004) and past events only provide understanding into the current climate system.

The most damning scientific claim from the film comes regarding the thermohaline shutdown caused by global warming. With reference to the Younger Dryas as stated above, a complete shutdown of the Northern Atlantic deep-water formation is very doubtful to occur within the next century (Muller, 2016). Weaver (2004) contributes that there is simply not enough land ice currently available for the amounts of freshwater required for a climate event like the Younger Dryas. In fact, if indeed an event like that did occur, it would possibly take centuries and likely still not results in an ice age (Weaver, 2004), as cooling processes merely reduce the global energy balance by a relatively small amount from its initial state; they cannot alter the global climate into a fixed state. However, the film eventually depicts a rapid and comprehensive shutdown of the defined thermohaline circulation within only a few days leading to the next ice age, seemingly scientifically impossible and implausible.

After critiquing the initial causes highlighted in the eventual ice age of The Day After Tomorrow, the actual storm associated with the onset of this ice age has been reviewed and now highlighted as incredibly scientifically inaccurate. The film depicts massive networking hurricane shaped (circular with an eye) snowstorms which seen from space in the film, expand and cover entire continents. These snowstorms then dump such massive amounts of snow they reflect sunlight and create the next ice age in only a few days. Within the film a climatologist explains to the paleoclimatologist who made the initial discovery that there is cold air descending so rapidly from the top of the troposphere, inside the eye of the storm, that it does not warm up and estimates the temperature of this air to be approximately -100°C, as seen in the movie this air freezes a helicopter within seconds. Scientifically the storms seem highly inaccurate. Firstly, within a hurricane the location of the coldest and highest part of the troposphere known as the tropopause never exceeds -100°C and averages -60°C (Waco, 1970; Frank, 1977). Secondly, the lowest pressure in a hurricane system is generally within the eye of the storm (Walsh, 2019), in this case the snowstorms in the film. With reference to both points, the rapidly cooling air in the snowstorms depicted in The Day After Tomorrow should therefore be rising to the Tropopause and not falling.

Further scientific inaccuracies exist in the film with relation to the eventual sea level rise. Before the snowstorms commence, massive and destructive natural disasters are depicted in the film all around the world. One such natural disaster is the rapid and seemingly impossible rise in sea level. Rising sea levels are scientifically proven to occur through climate change and global warming, however these changes in sea level are expected to be minimal and particularly gradual (Manabe and Stauffer, 1995). A study by Vermeer and Rahmstorf (2009) estimates a projected sea level rise between 1-2 metres by the year 2100. Whereas, in The Day After Tomorrow sea levels appear to rise above 10 metres in North America, assumedly from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Such rapid sea level rise would usually be associated with a tsunami or during the storm surge from a hurricane, however these natural disasters would still not produce such a rapid and sustained rise in sea level. During the film astronauts view the Earth after the snowstorms have subsided and it appears that each continent has maintained similar coastlines and surfaces areas as before the ice age begun. This seems implausible as the resulting 10m rise in sea level due to the warming event has not changed any geomorphology at all.

Lastly, throughout the film climate modelling is used extensively to develop models of the climate system and snowstorm patterns. However, climate modelling within the film is depicted poorly. The concept of climate modelling is simple, attempt to model climatic conditions accurately over a certain period. In the film they try to accurately model the storm over the coming months, which as anyone who follows the weather would know, is seemingly impossible. If we look at weather models, which only predict initial atmospheric conditions and are only relevant for a week or two, as after a short amount of time, the nature of weather patterns and any modelling errors will cause any predictions to change. Compare these short-term weather forecasts to climatic predictions and we are essentially attempting to model conditions over decades if not centuries. The film attempts to predict weather patterns over a large timeframe, which appears nearly impossible given the time required to model such climate conditions and the unpredictability of climates.

In conclusion, the above critique of the film The Day After Tomorrow has listed several scientific errors highlighted within the work. The film depicts how the sudden and rapid shutdown of thermohaline circulation from global warming began the new ice age. The film greatly inflated the severity and rate of cooling in this instance. Essentially, The Day After Tomorrow claims that when a new ice age can begin so rapidly as a few days, it is not due to well-known and understood scientific processes that have triggered past climatic glacial periods, rather it is caused by massive snowstorms massive storms with physically impossible characteristics radically altering atmospheric conditions. Regarding the scientific accuracy of the film, it would not have been very costly to employ an expert in climatology or a meteorologist during the production of the film. Given the whole plot is centred around climate change and global warming, it seems like scientific accuracy should have been at the forefront of the producer’s mind. The Day After Tomorrow is however just a movie and does provide some positive insights for viewers. The film highlights the current issue of global climate change and depicts potential short- and long-term effects if nothing is done about it. The film may provide viewers with a willingness to discover more about climate change and establish change globally.

References:

  • Alley, R, Meese, D, Shuman, C. (1993). Abrupt increase in Greenland snow accumulation at the end of the Younger Dryas event. Nature 362, 527–529.
  • Alley, R.B. 2000. The Younger Dryas cold interval as viewed from central Greenland -Quaternary Science Reviews v.19, p. 213–226.
  • Broecker, W, Kennett, J, Flower, B. (1989). Routing of meltwater from the Laurentide Ice Sheet during the Younger Dryas cold episode. Nature 341, 318–321.
  • Dahl-Jensen, D. and Gundestrup, N. S. (1987). The Physical Basis of Ice Sheet Modelling (eds Waddington, E. D. & Walder, J. S.) IAHS Publication. 170, 31–43.
  • Domingues, C,M. (2008) Improved estimates of upper-ocean warming and multidecadal sea-level rise. Nature 453:1090–1096.
  • Frank, W.M. (1977). ‘The structure and energetics of the tropical cyclone I. Storm structure’. Monthly Weather Review. 105 (9): 1119–1135.
  • Manabe, S and Stouffer R.J. (1995). Simulation of abrupt climate change induced by freshwater input to the North Atlantic Ocean. Nature, v. 378, pp. 165–167.
  • Müller, J., 2016, New evidence for abrupt sea-ice fluctuations in the subpolar North Atlantic at the end of the Last Glacial in relation with thermohaline and atmospheric circulation: Nature, V. 520, pp. 157–160.
  • Severinghaus, J. (1999). Abrupt Climate Change at the End of the Last Glacial Period Inferred from Trapped Air in Polar Ice. Science. 286 (5441): 930-934.
  • Rahmstorf, S and Vermeer, M. (2009). Global sea level linked to global temperature Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (51) 21527-21532.
  • Weaver, A.J. (2004). Global Warming and the Next Ice Age. Science: Vol. 304, Issue 5669, pp. 400-402.
  • Waco, D.E. (1970). ‘Temperatures and Turbulence at Tropopause Levels over Hurricane Beulah (1967)’. Monthly Weather Review. 98 (10): 749–755.
  • Walsh, K. J. E.; Camargo, S. J.; Knutson, T. R.; Kossin, J.; Lee, T. -C.; Murakami, H.; Patricola, C. (2019). ‘Tropical cyclones and climate change’. Tropical Cyclone Research and Review. 8 (4): 240–250.  
16 December 2021

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