Day After Tomorrow Film Review Essays

The 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, in which global warming leads to a new ice age, has been vigorously criticized by climate scientists. Why is this? What mistakes in the film led Dr. Andrew Weaver, Canada’s top climate modeller, to claim that “the science-fiction movie The Day After Tomorrow creatively violates every known law of thermodynamics”? What prompted Dr. Gavin Schmidt, NASA climatologist, to say that “The Day After Tomorrow was so appallingly bad, it was that that prompted me to become a more public scientist”? What could an innocent blockbuster movie have done to deserve such harsh criticisms?

A New Ice Age?

The Day After Tomorrow opens with a new scientific discovery by paleoclimatologist Jack Hall, played by Dennis Quaid. After a particularly harrowing trip to gather Antarctic ice cores, he discovers evidence of a previously unknown climate shift that occurred ten thousand years ago. Since the film is set in the early 2000s, and ice cores yielding hundreds of thousands of years of climate data have been studied extensively since the 1960s, it seems implausible that such a recent and dramatic global climatic event would have gone previously unnoticed by scientists. However, this misstep is excusable, because a brand new discovery is a vital element of many science fiction films.

Jack goes on to describe this ancient climate shift. As the world was coming out of the last glacial period, he explains, melting ice sheets added so much freshwater to the Atlantic Ocean that certain ocean circulation patterns shut down. Since thermohaline circulation is a major source of heat for the surfaces of continents, the globe was plunged back into an ice age. Jack’s portrayal of the event is surprisingly accurate: a sudden change in climate did occur around ten thousand years ago, and was most likely caused by the mechanisms he describes. To scientists, it is known as the Younger Dryas.

The world’s ascent out of the last ice age was not smooth and gradual; rather, it was punctuated by jumps in temperature coupled with abrupt returns to glacial conditions. The Younger Dryas – named after a species of flower whose pollen was preserved in ice cores during the event – was the last period of sudden cooling before the interglacial fully took over. Ice core data worldwide indicates a relatively rapid drop in global temperatures around eleven thousand years ago. The glacial conditions lasted for approximately a millennium until deglaciation resumed.

The leading hypothesis for the cause of the Younger Dryas involves a sudden influx of freshwater from the melting Laurentide Ice Sheet in North America into the Atlantic Ocean. This disruption to North Atlantic circulation likely caused North Atlantic deep water formation, a process which supplies vast amounts of heat to northern Europe, to shut down. Substantial regional cooling allowed the glaciers of Europe to expand. The ice reflected sunlight, which triggered further cooling through the ice-albedo feedback. However, the orbital changes which control glacial cycles eventually overpowered this feedback. Warming resumed, and the current interglacial period began.

While Jack Hall’s discussion of the Younger Dryas is broadly accurate, his projections for the future are far-fetched. He asserts that, since the most recent example of large-scale warming triggered glacial conditions, the global warming event currently underway will also cause an ice age. At a United Nations conference, he claims that this outcome is virtually certain and “only a matter of time”. Because it happened in the past, he reasons, it will definitely happen now. Jack seems to forget that every climate event is unique: while looking to the past can be useful to understand today’s climate system, it does not provide a perfect analogue upon which we can base predictions. Differences in continental arrangement, initial energy balance, and global ice cover, to name a few factors, guarantee that no two climate changes will develop identically.

Additionally, Jack’s statements regarding the plausibility of an imminent thermohaline shutdown due to global warming fly in the face of current scientific understanding. As the world continues to warm, and the Greenland ice sheet continues to melt, the North Atlantic circulation will probably slow down due to the added freshwater. The resulting cooling influence on parts of Europe will probably still be overwhelmed by warming due to greenhouse gases. However, a complete shutdown of North Atlantic deep water formation is extremely unlikely within this century. It’s unclear whether an eventual shutdown is even possible, largely because there is less land ice available to melt than there was during the Younger Dryas. If such an event did occur, it would take centuries and still would not cause an ice age – instead, it would simply cancel out some of the greenhouse warming that had already occurred. Cooling influences simply decrease the global energy balance by a certain amount from its initial value; they do not shift the climate into a predetermined state regardless of where it started.

Nevertheless, The Day After Tomorrow goes on to depict a complete shutdown of Atlantic thermohaline circulation in a matter of days, followed by a sudden descent into a global ice age that is spurred by physically impossible meteorological phenomena.

The Storm

Many questions about the Ice Ages remain, but the scientific community is fairly confident that the regular cycles of glacial and interglacial periods that occurred throughout the past three million years were initiated by changes in the Earth’s orbit and amplified by carbon cycle feedbacks. Although these orbital changes have been present since the Earth’s formation, they can only lead to an ice age if sufficient land mass is present at high latitudes, as has been the case in recent times. When a glacial period begins, changes in the spatial and temporal distribution of sunlight favour the growth of glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere. These glaciers reflect sunlight, which alters the energy balance of the planet. The resulting cooling decreases atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, through mechanisms such as absorption by cold ocean waters and expansion of permafrost, which causes more cooling. When this complex web of feedbacks stabilizes, over tens of thousands of years, the average global temperature is several degrees lower and glaciers cover much of the Northern Hemisphere land mass.

The ice age in The Day After Tomorrow has a more outlandish origin. Following the thermohaline shutdown, a network of massive hurricane-shaped snowstorms, covering entire continents, deposits enough snow to reflect sunlight and create an ice age in a matter of days. As if that weren’t enough, the air at the eye of each storm is cold enough to freeze people instantly, placing the characters in mortal danger. Jack’s friend Terry Rapson, a climatologist from the UK, explains that cold air from the top of the troposphere is descending so quickly in the eye of each storm that it does not warm up as expected. He estimates that the air must be -150°F (approximately -100°C) or colder, since it is instantly freezing the fuel lines in helicopters.

There are two main problems with this description of the storm. Firstly, the tropopause (the highest and coldest part of the troposphere) averages -60°C, and nowhere does it reach -100°C. Secondly, the eye of a hurricane – and presumably of the hurricane-shaped snowstorms – has the lowest pressure of anywhere in the storm. This fundamental characteristic indicates that air should be rising in the eye of each snowstorm, not sinking down from the tropopause.

Later in the film, NASA scientist Janet Tokada is monitoring the storms using satellite data. She notes that temperature is decreasing within the storm “at a rate of 10 degrees per second”. Whether the measurement is in Fahrenheit or Celsius, this rate of change is implausible. In under a minute (which is likely less time than the satellite reading takes) the air would reach absolute zero, a hypothetical temperature at which all motion stops.

In conclusion, there are many problems with the storm system as presented in the film, only a few of which have been summarized here. One can rest assured that such a frightening meteorological phenomenon could not happen in the real world.

Sea Level Rise

Before the snowstorms begin, extreme weather events – from hurricanes to tornadoes to giant hailstones – ravage the globe. Thrown in with these disasters is rapid sea level rise. While global warming will raise sea levels, the changes are expected to be extremely gradual. Most recent estimates project a rise of 1-2 metres by 2100 and tens of metres in the centuries following. In contrast, The Day After Tomorrow shows the ocean rising by “25 feet in a matter of seconds” along the Atlantic coast of North America. This event is not due to a tsunami, nor the storm surge of a hurricane; it is assumed to be the result of the Greenland ice sheet melting.

As the film continues and an ice age begins, the sea level should fall. The reasons for this change are twofold: first, a drop in global temperatures causes ocean water to contract; second, glacier growth over the Northern Hemisphere locks up a great deal of ice that would otherwise be present as liquid water in the ocean. However, when astronauts are viewing the Earth from space near the end of the film, the coastlines of each continent are the same as today. They have not been altered by either the 25-foot rise due to warming or the even larger fall that cooling necessitates. Since no extra water was added to the Earth from space, maintaining sea level in this manner is physically impossible.

Climate Modelling

Since the Second World War, ever-increasing computer power has allowed climate scientists to develop mathematical models of the climate system. Since there aren’t multiple Earths on which to perform controlled climatic experiments, the scientific community has settled for virtual planets instead. When calibrated, tested, and used with caution, these global climate models can produce valuable projections of climate change over the next few centuries. Throughout The Day After Tomorrow, Jack and his colleagues rely on such models to predict how the storm system will develop. However, the film’s representation of climate modelling is inaccurate in many respects.

Firstly, Jack is attempting to predict the development of the storm over the next few months, which is impossible to model accurately using today’s technology. Weather models, which project initial atmospheric conditions into the future, are only reliable for a week or two: after this time, the chaotic nature of weather causes small rounding errors to completely change the outcome of the prediction. On the other hand, climate models are concerned with average values and boundary conditions over decades, which are not affected by the principles of chaos theory. Put another way, weather modelling is like predicting the outcome of a single dice roll based on how the dice was thrown; climate modelling is like predicting the net outcome of one hundred dice rolls based on how the dice is weighted. Jack’s inquiry, though, falls right between the two: he is predicting the exact behaviour of a weather system over a relatively long time scale. Until computers become vastly more precise and powerful, this exercise is completely unreliable.

Furthermore, the characters make seemingly arbitrary distinctions between “forecast models”, “paleoclimate models”, and “grid models”. In the real world, climate models are categorized by complexity, not by purpose. For example, GCMs (General Circulation Models) represent the most processes and typically have the highest resolutions, while EMICs (Earth System Models of Intermediate Complexity) include more approximations and run at lower resolutions. All types of climate models can be used for projections (a preferred term to “forecasts” because the outcomes of global warming are dependent on emissions scenarios), but are only given credence if they can accurately simulate paleoclimatic events such as glacial cycles. All models include a “grid”, which refers to the network of three-dimensional cells used to split the virtual Earth’s surface, atmosphere, and ocean into discrete blocks.

Nevertheless, Jack gets to work converting his “paleoclimate model” to a “forecast model” so he can predict the path of the storm. It is likely that this conversion involves building a new high-resolution grid and adding dozens of new climatic processes to the model, a task which would take months to years of work by a large team of scientists. However, Jack appears to have superhuman programming abilities: he writes all the code by himself in 24 hours!

When he has finished, he decides to get some rest until the simulation has finished running. In the real world, this would take at least a week, but Jack’s colleagues wake him up after just a few hours. Evidently, their lab has access to computing resources more powerful than anything known to science today. Then, Jack’s colleagues hand him “the results” on a single sheet of paper. Real climate model output comes in the form of terabytes of data tables, which can be converted to digital maps, animations, and time plots using special software. Jack’s model appeared to simply spit out a few numbers, and what these numbers may have referred to is beyond comprehension.

If The Day After Tomorrow was set several hundred years in the future, the modelling skill of climate scientists and the computer power available to them might be plausible. Indeed, it would be very exciting to be able to build, run, and analyse models as quickly and with as much accuracy as Jack and his colleagues can. Unfortunately, in the present day, the field of climate modelling works quite differently.

Conclusions

The list of serious scientific errors in The Day After Tomorrow is unacceptably long. The film depicts a sudden shutdown of thermohaline circulation due to global warming, an event that climate scientists say is extremely unlikely, and greatly exaggerates both the severity and the rate of the resulting cooling. When a new ice age begins in a matter of days, it isn’t caused by the well-known mechanisms that triggered glacial periods in the past – rather, massive storms with physically impossible characteristics radically alter atmospheric conditions. The melting Greenland ice sheet causes the oceans to rise at an inconceivable rate, but when the ice age begins, sea level does not fall as the laws of physics dictate it should. Finally, the film depicts the endeavour of science, particularly the field of climate modelling, in a curious and inaccurate manner.

It would not have been very difficult or expensive for the film’s writing team to hire a climatologist as a science advisor – in fact, given that the plot revolves around global warming, it seems strange that they did not do so. One can only hope that future blockbuster movies about climate change will be more rigorous with regards to scientific accuracy.

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Posted in Reviews | Tagged climate change, dennis quaid, film, global warming, ice age, movies, science, the day after tomorrow | 26 Comments


The Day After Tomorrow

Good and Bad Science as Presented in the Movie


Introduction and Background Information

Global Warming is a familiar topic that shows up frequently news headlines, is taught in science classes and explored in depth in science magazines.
Documented scientific evidence exists that earth is warming and that, in fact, it has warmed 1° Fahrenheit (0.56° Celsius) in the last decade, mostly due to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels. While one degree may not seem all that significant the fact is that such an increase has had an impact on global sea levels due to the melting of Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland Ice. The Antarctic Larsen Ice Sheet has collapsed. Ironically the collapse of the Larsen Ice Shelf actually occurred after it had been written into the movie. Greenland's ice sheet is predicted to melt if global temperatures rise by 5.4° Fahrenheit (3° Celsius), resulting in a sea level rise of 23 feet (7 meters).
One species-related effect of global warming was exposed in a recent MSNBC news article dated Oct 23, 2006. It stated that "Dead Zones" have increased by one third in just two years, bringing the number from 149 to 200. Dead Zones are areas of the world's oceans where blooms of tiny plants known as phytoplankton, along with the bacteria that consume them, have depleted the oxygen that fish rely upon for their very existence. Not only are fish species becoming less plentiful as food but they are also in danger of extinction. The causes are the dumping of pollutants into waterways and also the burning of fossil fuels which releases greenhouse gases.1 Carbon dioxide alone has increased about 30 percent in the last century. Greenhouse gases that become trapped in the Earth's atmosphere act like a blanket, preventing outgoing terrestrial radiation from escaping back into space. Average air temperatures rise and the secondary effect is an increase water temperatures. Fish that cannot adapt quickly to warmer water become stressed and large scale fishkill is inevitable. However, the algae and bacteria that cause the eutrophication of oceans thrive quite well in warmer waters.
By 2050, rising temperatures could drive more than a million terrestrial plants and animals into extinction.2 Nearly everyday there is a news headline with a discovery of another negative impact that global warming is having on our planet and on living organisms.

If global temperatures continue to increase many or all of the following concerns can and will become a reality:

  • Melting of Glacial Ice, most importantly the Greenland Ice Sheet and Polar Ice Caps, leading to…
  • Global sea level rise due to warm water expansion and incoming fresh water from melting glaciers resulting in…
  • Coastal flooding and erosion.
  • An increase in precipitation, especially at middle and high latitudes, with an increase in river runoff.
  • A decrease in ocean salinity and a subsequent change in ocean current circulation patterns.
  • Major shifts in ocean currents would affect both climate and species survival and possibly result in the extinction of many species, especially marine life. It is estimated that more than a million species may become extinct by the year 2050.
  • Declining crops resulting in global starvation.
  • Drinking water is less available.
  • Changes in weather patterns including an increase in violent storms, winds, hurricanes and tornadoes and extreme El Niño events.
  • Climate shifts - Droughts in areas that once experienced measurable rainfall amounts and higher than normal precipitation for other locations.
  • Higher death tolls from:
  • Malnutrition
  • Heat stress
  • Widespread disease

In fact, the year 2005 set the all-time greenhouse gas record and levels continue to spiral upward.3 Scientific data shows that present-day changes, caused by increased temperatures, include the following:

  • A substantial decrease in ocean salinity has been recorded over the last 30 years. This may be caused by the following…
  • Polar sea ice has thinned by 40% over the last 40 years.
  • The melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet has accelerated to the point equivalent to a .13mm/year rise in sea level.
  • Warm water expands and so sea levels have risen 4 to 8 inches (10-20 centimeters).
  • Precipitation and river runoff have measurably increased 7-12% over the last 100 years, mainly between the 30°N and 85°N latitudes.
  • Sea levels have risen 0.3 to 0.7 feet over the last century.4

If fossil fuel emissions continue at present or even higher rates, computer generated climate models predict an additional warming of about 2-10 °F over the next 100 years would be possible.

While there are those who debunk Global Warming believing Earth's temperature rise to be a natural, inter-glacial, phenomenon, most scientists tend to agree that a state of warming does exist and that humans are responsible for this temperature increase due to the addition of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over a short period of time.

Then the movie The Day After Tomorrow comes along causing people to question, "Is this what will happen to our Earth's climate?" "Will these changes and catastrophic events occur and will they happen soon?" While the movie is based on a few sound scientific facts, the key fictional aspects of the film revolve around 2 adjectives: exaggerated and abrupt.

The plot of The Day After Tomorrow, inspired by The Coming Global Superstorm, a book written in 1999 by At Bell and Whitley Strieberis, is based on the following scenario: Earth is in a state of Global Warming but soon temperatures are about to drastically change. The Gulf Stream (North Atlantic drift), referred to in the movie as the "ocean conveyor belt", is disrupted and abruptly stops flowing due to the melting of the polar ice caps and an influx of large volumes of fresh water into the oceans. Since the Gulf Stream brings warm water from the tropics past the North American continent, then continues in a circular pattern across the Atlantic towards Western Europe, the climates of these continents are influenced by this warm water current. The disruption in the Gulf Stream circulation pattern results in a severe global deep freeze which sets the stage for the fictional drama in the film.

Abrupt Climate Change

When scientists speak about abrupt climate change they mean within five or ten years up to a century. For on-screen drama, events was compressed to a couple of days to weeks and, put simply, Ice Ages do not occur, nor do they retreat, overnight. Climate change has happened a couple of times over the last 13,000 years but, unlike in the movie, never in a few days time.
A complete shut down of the Gulf Stream is possible and is believed to have happened in the geologic past however, it is not expected to occur within the 21st century. It would require a 9°F (5°C) average global temperature increase to create all the conditions necessary for a complete stoppage of this ocean current.

Can Global Warming lead to Global Cooling?

Yes it can, but not over several days as depicted in the movie. Over geologic time Earth has gone through several ice ages followed by inter-glacial warming periods. One possible cause of major periods of glaciation is a change in the tilt of Earth's axis causing a corresponding change in the intensity and location of sun insolation.

Shorter periods of much cooler temperatures have also occurred due to:

  • A major volcanic eruption that causes pyroclastics to block and reduce incoming solar radiation resulting in cooler temperatures and a "year without a summer". The ash from the 1816 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia cooled Earth so significantly that New England experienced June snowfalls and, throughout the summer months, crop failures were the norm in New England and also in northern Europe.
  • A change in the circulation of ocean currents due to the melting of major Ice Sheets resulting in decreased salinity caused by the addition of large volumes of fresh melt water. The Younger Dryas and the "8200 years before present" events were both drier periods with much colder temperatures. They are believed to have resulted from melting glaciers and the subsequent alteration of the Gulf Stream current.

Scientists are well aware of the delicate balance between 'cloud cover, aerosols, solar radiation and greenhouse gases' and resulting climatic changes. It is absolutely possible that a state of global warming could lead to much colder temperatures for North America and Western Europe, however the timeframe for such an event would not be days or weeks but rather decades and the deep freeze would probably not reach Ice Age proportions.

Two distinct factors that can lead to a state of cooling after a period of global warming are:
A change in Thermohaline Circulation and a change in Cloud Cover and Aerosols.

Oceanic Circulation Patterns - Thermohaline Circulation

As depicted in the movie, a disruption to the pattern of circulation in the Gulf Stream is a possibility that is based on sound scientific concerns. The climates of North America and Europe are influenced by the Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current seen boxed in red on the illustration to the left. An interruption in this pattern of flow, either a decrease in the temperature of the Gulf Stream or a cessation of flow altogether would result in dramatic lowering of average temperatures for both continents. The melting of Arctic sea ice and resulting disturbance of the Gulf Stream ocean current, could bring colder weather to Europe and North America and a rise in temperature for the southern hemisphere.

The unknown factor is how much of this Northern Hemisphere cooling would be offset by simultaneous atmospheric global warming.

The Gulf Stream acts like a conveyor belt, moving in a circular pattern; a convection current driven by the density difference between warm, tropical salt water versus the colder water found at northern latitudes. An ocean current is like a river flowing through the ocean, at all times maintaining its integrity as one single body of water traveling on a distinct course.
As the Gulf Stream flows from equatorial regions, along the east coast of North America, two things happen. First, the warm current loses heat to the air, modifying coastal land temperatures. Second, because the Gulf Stream has lost heat, the current is now colder and so the water in current sinks. As the water sinks it flows back towards the tropics close to the ocean bottom.

Why is the melting of glacial ice such a problem for the Gulf Stream? Fresh water is less dense than salt water therefore, when a large volume of fresh water mixes with a salt water current, it may no longer be dense enough to sink. This would slow down, if not stop, the Gulf Stream from continuing its present course, the end result being that temperatures, normally modified by its path, would drastically change...for the colder.
In the past retreating glaciers dumped enough water into oceans to cause the North Atlantic branch of the Gulf Stream current to stop. This occurred around 8,200 and 12,700 years ago and both times the climate cooled.
Exactly how much fresh water is necessary to totally shut down the Gulf Stream is uncertain.

Experts say, "Watch the ice!" Continued melting of glacial ice is the most important telltale sign that Global Warming is taking place.

Cloud Cover and Aerosols

Higher temperatures increase the amount of cloud cover due to an increase in higher evaporation rates of surface water.
Initially, the clouds will assist in trapping heat re-radiating from Earth's surface, adding to the global warming process and the continued rise in temperatures.
However, cloud cover actually works against global warming. Clouds tend to block and reflect back into space any incoming solar radiation, increasing Earth's albedo. After some time, global warming is no longer the main issue; instead global cooling conditions are a threat. How long the cooling will take after the initial warming is uncertain. Some models suggest approximately 50-100 years, but cooling could come much sooner.

Another critical factor in both the formation of thicker, denser clouds and the blocking of sun insolation is aerosols; small particulates such as ash, soot, skin cells, sea salt, sulfates, pollutants and dust. Some of these particulates are natural in origin. Since the industrial revolution however, humans have introduced an excessive amount of pollutants into the air through the burning of fossil fuels. It has been estimated that cloud cover may have increased up to 5% solely based on aerosol emissions contributed by humans.
Airborne aerosols are condenstion nuclei for cloud formation, causing water vapor to condense into more, but smaller, cloud droplets resulting in the thicker cloud cover seen over the past few decades. Ironically, though there is more cloud cover, there is less rain because the water droplets are too small and lightweight to fall.
In addition, aerosols tend to block and reflect sun energy even when they not part of a cloud formation.

Can Global Warming and Global Cooling
Result in Significant Changes in Weather Patterns?

Yes but once again, not as abruptly, nor to the exaggerated degree as seen in the movie. The next 6 sections deal with specific events in the film, exposing the good and the bad science for each meteorological disaster.

Tornadoes Hit Los Angeles

California has never experienced a tornado higher than an F1 on the F1 to F5 Fujita Scale nor have any fatalities occurred as a result of one. Generally speaking, there is a recent increase in the frequency of tornadoes in the United States. However, it must be pointed out that technology used to detect and record tornadoes has significantly improved along with an increase in more stations capable of analyzing tornadic activity.
Such a technological advance will inevitably detect the smaller, weaker and less damaging tornadoes that decades ago may have gone unrecorded. On the Fujita Scale there has actually been a decline in the more severe tornadoes, those ranking F3 through F5.
The erratic behavior of storms generated in a globally warmed climate cannot at this time be predicted with respect to exactly which locations will bear the brunt of increased violent weather activity. Therefore, references made in the film with respect to tornadoes in Los Angeles neither depart from a possible reality nor are they supported by historical fact or computer-generated models of future weather patterns.
Scientists do admit that more violent weather will occur with rising temperatures. This is due to the fact that an increase in evaporation rates provides the atmosphere with more water vapor, the essential fuel for storm activity.

Massive Storm in New Delhi and a Southward Advancing Ice Age

While it is true that some areas would experience significant drops in temperature due to a change in ocean current circulation, global warming will not necessarily bring about a worldwide Ice Age. Greenhouse gases trap heat and many locations on Earth will experience an increase in temperatures. Also, at this point in time, the Northern Hemisphere is receiving more incoming solar radiation than it did during the last ice Age 20,000 years ago.

Hurricanes and Global Warming

There has been a steady increase in Atlantic hurricane activity since 1995 and according to Kevin Trenberth and Dennis Shea of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), "Global warming accounted for around half of the extra hurricane-fueling warmth in the waters of the tropical North Atlantic in 2005, while natural cycles were only a minor factor".5 Hurricane seasons are forecast to be more active as global temperatures continue to rise. Fueling the 2005 hurricanes were ocean surface water temperatures 1.7° F above the 1901-1970 average with global warming accounting for approximately 0.8° F of this temperature increase.

Super Cell Hurricanes in the Movie

In The Day After Tomorrow several Super Cell Storms present immediate threats to mankind. Bringing freezing, sub-zero temperatures across massive continents, all life in the path of these cyclones will perish immediately. The very formation of these super cells is one of the movie's most significant departures from scientific fact.

  • While it is true that global warming can affect the strength, frequency and intensity of hurricanes one fact remains constant and that is that hurricanes form over warm water and lose strength or dissipate over land masses. The fuel that drives a hurricane is the latent heat given off by water vapor as it condenses into rain.
  • Also, separate storm systems do not merge into one gigantic super storm, especially true over a continental land mass.
  • Heavy rain is typical of a low pressure storm system and not the blizzard conditions seen in the movie.
  • Hurricanes tracks may change ranging farther north and south on warmer water temperatures if, in fact, ocean temperatures change but the calm eye of a cyclonic storm happens over ocean water, not land.
  • Another significant scientific error can be seen on the radar screens showing these Super Cells. In the Northern Hemisphere, cyclonic storms rotate counter-clockwise due to the Coriolis Effect caused by Earth's rotation. Yet, several times in the film the cyclones are shown moving clockwise.

Sub Zero Freezing Temperatures and Super Cell Storms

As freezing air descends it warms and then rises. However in the movie this law of physics is dismissed by one of the main characters, scientist Jack Hall, when he states that the air in the center of the super cell is "simply descending too quickly". Apparently, this super cell is an area of such extreme low pressure that cold air from the troposphere, (-150°F to -101°C) is rapidly sucked downward towards Earth's surface, instantly freezing everything it comes in contact with. The very concept defies Ideal Gas Laws.
When molecules of air descend they warm adiabatically due to compression. There are more air molecules concentrated closer to Earth's surface due to gravitational force. More air molecules means more molecular contact and collisions and this generates heat; a kinetic temperature, if you will, in proportion to the increase in kinetic energy.

Manhattan is Flooded by a Gigantic Tsunami

Actually, in the movie, the flooding of Manhattan is caused by a 300 foot "wind-driven storm surge". An actual tsunami that could produce an oncoming wave of the magnitude seen in the film would be caused by an underwater earthquake, a landslide or a direct meteorite impact over the ocean. In reality winds speeds would have to equal two times the speed of sound, or 1200 mph, in order to create a storm surge and wave in proportion to the one that inundated Manhattan.
The force of the onslaught of water against buildings would immediately implode all submerged windows along with sections of wall leaving behind complete devastation with very little left standing, including the Statue of Liberty. After the rush of water receded there would be no survivors left seeking shelter in the library.
Also interesting is the fact that the huge wave approached Manhattan from the east where the borough of Queens is located. The Atlantic Ocean is located south of Manhattan. The nearest body of open ocean found due east of Manhattan is 120 miles away off the east end of Long Island.

So, enjoy the movie!
The Day After Tomorrow has fantastic special effects,
an interesting story line and some tense moments.
But, know the science!


SAMPLE ESSAYS

Students and teachers may want to consider the following essays as a supporting activity when students watch The Day After Tomorrow. Teachers may find them helpful if the film will be shown in the classroom setting.
Students might consider doing one or more essays for extra science credit. Be sure to check with your instructor first.

1. Present arguments for and against a present state of Global Warming.
You can find many links to informative articles on this page: Earth Issues: Global Warming.

2. Presenting only documented scientific facts, research the effects that Global Warming will have on our planet. Include not only climate changes but also the effects that a rise in temperature will have on ice, sea levels, drought and weather patterns in general.
Some of the links that appear in the References and Credits section at the bottom of this document will assist you in your research.

3. CO2 Sequestration has been proposed as a possible natural intervention in the continued atmospheric accumulation of this greenhouse gas. It has also been proposed that humans might be able to sequester CO2 at depths within Earth's crust.

Research CO2 Sequestration, focusing on the following:

  • What it is?
  • The various ways that it can occur.
  • How it may help forestall or reverse the Global Warming process.
  • The natural and human aspects of the process.

You can begin your research by exploring the following web pages:
Science and fiction of 'Day After Tomorrow' - Scroll down and open the interactive animation.
Here is the above MSNBC interactive link alone: MSNBC CO2 Sequestation Interactive
Geotimes - March 2003 - Storing Carbon in Earth
Oceans Found to Absorb Half of All Man-Made Carbon Dioxide
The Carbon Cycle What Goes Around Comes Around by John Arthur Harrison, Ph.D., Visionlearning

4. In the movie The Day After Tomorrow, the effects of Global Warming are exaggerated and fictionalized for dramatic purposes.

First, explore some of the fictional aspects of the film pointing out specific scientific errors, exaggerations and impossibilities presented to the viewing public.
Second, state whether anything in the movie was actually factual.
Third, considering the overabundance of fictionalized data in the movie, in your opinion do you see a positive effect the film might have on the attitudes of the viewing public?
Explain your answer.

You may find some ideas towards the bottom of this web page: "Day After Tomorrow" Ice Age "Impossible," Researcher Says

5. "Global Warming can ultimately lead to a state of Global Cooling." Explain how this could occur.

Supplementing what you have read in this document, you may want to consult the following web sites as you begin to explore this concept:
A Chilling Possibility
The Science of Abrupt Climate Change

References and Credits

The Science of Abrupt Climate Change Dr. Jeffrey M. Masters Chief Meteorologist, The Weather Underground, Inc.
A Quick Background to the Last Ice Age
2005 Set Greenhouse Gas Record
A Chilling Possibility Science at NASA, March 5, 2004
The Day After Tomorrow Weather Underground Dr. Jeffrey M. Masters, Chief Meteorologist, The Weather Underground, Inc.
The film The Day After Tomorrow - comments by climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
Day After Tomorrow Ice Age Impossible, Researcher Says Stefan Lovgren for National Geographic News, May 27, 2004
Day After Tomorrow Movie - Could Ice Age Occur Overnight? - Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles for National Geographic News, May 18, 2004
Science and fiction of 'Day After Tomorrow' - Environment - MSNBC.com, May 27, 2004
Climate Flick Favors Fantasy Over Fact Science and Space, Michael Coren, CNN, Sunday, May 30, 2004, CNN.com
No Stopping it Now: Seas to Rise 4 Inches or More this Century Robert Roy Britt, LiveScience, Senior Writer, March 17, 2005
Antarctic Ice Shelf Collapses: Animation of Larsen B breakup, 31 January to 7 March 2002
Ice Shelf Breakup Challenges Researchers Jack Williams, USATODAY.com, May 28,2004
Global Warming Surpassed Natural Cycles In Fueling 2005 Hurricane Season, NCAR Scientists Conclude Science Daily, National Center for Atmospheric Research, June 22, 2006
New Research Adds Twist to Global Warming Debate Steven Milloy, FoxNews.com, October 12, 2006
U.N.: Ocean 'Dead Zones' Increasing Fast MSNBC News Services, Oct 23, 2006
The Day After Tomorrow (2004) Movie Physics, Intuitor.com, 2004
By 2050 Warming to Doom Million Species, Study Says John Roach, National Geographic News, July 12, 2004
Apocalypse Soon? Patrick J. Michaels, Sunday, May 16, 2004, Page B01, washingtonpost.com
Much of 'Day After's' Science is Fiction, Jack Williams,USATODAY.com, May 27, 2004
Penguin Decline in Antarctica Linked With Climate Change John Roach, National Geographic News, May 9, 2001
Warming to Cause Catastrophic Rise in Sea Level? Stefan Lovgren, National Geographic News, April 26, 2004
Global Cooling From Aerosol Climate Forcings Roger Pielke Sr., August 7, 2006
Could Reducing Global Dimming Mean a Hotter, Dryer World? Source: The Earth Institute at Columbia University
The Thermohaline Ocean Circulation, A Brief Fact Sheet, Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
The Day After Tomorrow Wikipedia
Cosmic Rays Linked To Global Warming Science Daily, American Geophysical Union, July 31, 2002
Space Ring Could Shade Earth and Stop Global Warming Robert Roy Britt, Senior Writer, Live Science, June 27, 2005
Ideal Gas Law R. Nave
Surface Ocean Currents Illustration: Earth Science Reference Tables, 2001 Edition State of New York Board of Regents Examinations

At the completion of this document in November of 2006, all of the above reference links were active and fully functional. They will, however, not be maintained.

The Day After Tomorrow - Good and Bad Science as Presented in the Movie
was written by and is © L. Immoor, Geolor.com, Geoteach.com 2006;
All Rights Reserved
See also: The Good and Bad Science in Popular Sci-Fi Movies


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