Sudden Climate Change: Just a movie plot?

POSTED 3 JUN 2004

1. Just another sci-fi flick?

2. Climatic roller-coaster

3. Furious feedback

4. Warming Southern Ice

About 3,250 square kilometers of Larsen B ice shelf, a floating ice mass along the Antarctic Peninsula, shattered and drifted away in 2002. The landward ice sheet is now sliding faster into the ocean. That could raise sea levels in a hurry. Courtesy NASA and Ted Scambos

This current carries heat around the globe. Could it be disturbed by melting freshwater entering the North Atlantic? The premise of Day After has some basis in climatic history. Courtesy NOAA

Ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica provide long-term records of past climate. Photo: USGS

Is climate a steady, lumbering beast? Or does it go through  "bumps, jumps and wiggles"?Climate. Don't count on it...
Seen The Day After Tomorrow? The new adventure movie follows a posse of high-school super-nerds hounded by water and ice. Maybe it's just the allure of seeing New York and Los Angeles undergo on-screen obliteration, but the disaster film is burning up the box office.

It's scary: Global warming, caused by burning too much fossil fuel, suddenly reverses circulation in the Atlantic Ocean, triggering continent-wide storms and then an ice age. As a 50-foot wave drenches up-scale merchandise along Fifth Avenue, our heroes cower in the upper floors of the New York Public Library, burning books to stay warm.

Meanwhile, climatologist Dennis Quaid, coincidentally the father of one library-bound nerd, predicts that the storm will wind up in a new ice age.

The vice-president, a Dick Cheney look-alike, tells Quaid to slack off: Experts are taking care of the situation.

Meanwhile, digital effects are making Earth look like it's stumbled into a meat locker.

In Hollywood, you ignore nerd-stars at your peril. Within a week, with half the Northern Hemisphere sheathed in ice, the chastened veep, now promoted to president, has changed his tune. From his bivouac in Mexico City, he finally admits the error of dissing the danger of global warming.

aerial view of icy coastline breaking up

Blockbuster, or warning?
warm and cold water currents curve around the oceans--Africa and Asia in center horizontallyDoes the movie bear any relation to reality, or is it just another blockheaded summer blockbuster? While the time period is ridiculously compressed, scientists say it contains a kernel of truth. Says Penn State geologist Richard Alley, a specialist in past climates, "I think it's great science fiction, when I read the script I enjoyed it as science fantasy. But it does raise questions. Most science fiction starts from something that is scientifically interesting, and goes into fiction. Abrupt climate change has been real, and could be real in the future."

At the very least, scientists no longer view climate as a steady, lumbering beast. Instead, it exhibits what Alley calls "bumps, jumps and wiggles."

shiny pole burrowed into snow. Snow-suited pair on either side With 6.3 billion people living on Earth, those bumps and jumps matter more than ever, whether they concern rainfall, temperature, or storms.

Fifteen thousand years ago, the globe was still in the throes of a long ice age. Only after the planet warmed did we get cities, writing, agriculture, even roller coasters and primates that climb cliffs for kicks.

The 10,000 years of human civilization have played out -- no accident -- against the backdrop of a steady climate. But could our familiar, benign weather end as abruptly as it started?

10 degrees C of change -- whether heating or cooling -- would be a catastrophe.

How powerful is the evidence for abrupt climate change in the past?

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2004, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.