On March 13, the Guardian newspaper of London, beating the American networks by nearly eight months, called the U.S. presidential election -- for Sen. John F. Kerry. The Democrat would win, the paper declared, not because of his plan for Iraq, or his proposals for the economy, but because of . . . a movie.
Specifically, a movie about global warming. It's called "The Day After Tomorrow." And if it doesn't actually unseat George Bush, it won't be for lack of trying. It opens on May 28, but this movie is already being vocally touted by none other than former vice president Al Gore, on behalf of MoveOn.org, a liberal Internet advocacy group backed in part by billionaire George Soros that appears to be dedicated to defeating Bush.
At least that's the take-home message from the MoveOn Web site, which ominously calls "The Day After Tomorrow" "the movie the White House doesn't want you to see" -- because it will supposedly ignite a backlash against Bush's global warming policies, which favor slow technological evolution over immediate (and expensive) reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. As a climatologist, I'm concerned that this putative backlash could be caused by scientific nonsense.
Let's not forget that the planet is warmer than it was when the Little Ice Age ended in the 19th century, and that people have had something (not everything) to do with that. But what Gore and the movie do is to exaggerate this largely benign truth into a fictional apocalypse.
Gore last sounded the alarm on global warming at a rally hosted by MoveOn.org in New York on Jan. 15, which happened to be the coldest day of the past decade in the Northeast. That was fitting, because the thesis of "The Day After Tomorrow" is that global warming causes a new ice age. And not just any old glaciation, either, but one that builds up in only three days.
Here's the plot. In the middle of a Northern Hemisphere summer, the temperature of the high-latitude Atlantic and Pacific suddenly drops 15 degrees. This is caused by the shutdown of the Gulf Stream, which keeps Europe from being the icebox it should be at its northerly latitude.
Since the Gulf Stream is no longer transporting warm water to Europe, the tropics get hotter and hotter, and the poles colder and colder. In a series of massive thunderstorms, the atmosphere flips over, and increasingly cold stratospheric air is drawn down to the earth's surface, creating a low-pressure system that produces hundreds of feet of snow. Temperatures in Canada drop 100 degrees in an hour. Just about everyone north of Washington, D.C., dies. The following summer, the ice melts and a continental flood ensues.
Hurricanes hit Belfast. San Francisco Bay freezes. Hailstones the size of canned hams bomb Tokyo. According to the movie's Web page, Madras, India, becomes the "New Venice of the South."
The movie makers maintain that much of this has already started. Disaster is heading our way pronto. The picture's Web site reminds us, for instance, that just last May, we had a record number of tornados for one month, and that more than half of the deaths that occur in hurricanes now are due to inland floods rather than coastal damage.
Both these observations prove either that "The Day After Tomorrow" is full of high-tech distortion, or that the movie's makers live in a reality-free environment. Here are the facts: The number of tornadoes is going up because of dramatic improvements in detection technology. As the first weather radar network went online in the 1960s and '70s, tornados rose in proportion with the increase in the number of stations. They then leveled out until the newer-generation Doppler radars became operational in 1988, when the number of twisters again rose proportionally.
The filmmakers might have looked up the history of severe tornadoes, ones that rank from F3 through F5 on the Fujita scale, a metric analogous to the better-known Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. There's actually a slight decline in these killer storms. There are "more" tornados only because the new radar technologies are detecting weaker storms that cause little damage and were previously unseen.
The filmmakers also could have consulted hurricane data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which show that maximum winds in storms measured by hurricane hunter aircraft -- that's more than 50 years worth of data -- have declined significantly. There's actually a plausible scientific argument (one I don't subscribe to) that planetary warming is causing this decrease. Some scientists, such as Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., believe that global warming increases the strength of the natural Pacific Ocean climate oscillation known as El Nino. (Trenberth has said that much in the movie is "off the wall" and finds it "disappointing that it procreates a rather wrong scientific impression" about global warming.) El Nino then sends a waft of westerly winds into the high-altitude Atlantic basin, and hurricanes, which are surprisingly delicate spirals, get torn apart over the open ocean.
And why are more people in the United States now killed by hurricane-induced inland floods than by the direct coastal impact? That's also because of technology. NOAA can now predict a hurricane's top winds and its point of impact with exquisite accuracy. As a result, there are no people around to die at landfall, since they have all been evacuated inland. But forecasting where a hurricane will ultimately drop its load of moisture is still pretty much a crapshoot. It's much easier for a computer to track and forecast the movement of a well-defined hurricane eye than it is to track some amorphous mass of moisture twirling hundreds of miles away.
As Trenberth noted, the movie is pretty much devoid of basic atmospheric science. Here are a few more examples:
Hurricanes at Belfast's latitude, as depicted in the film, would have to move from west to east, or across all of Ireland, which would kill any tropical cyclone. Oh, you say, maybe the atmosphere gets so convoluted that hurricanes suddenly move from east to west? Fine. Except that there's hardly any water, the lifeblood of hurricanes, available to feed them, because England and continental Europe are sitting in the way.
Presumably Madras is inundated when all the ice that built up during the superstorm melts. Sorry, but there's only so much water to go around. The ice that was deposited on the land came from water in the ocean, which means that when it melts, the sea level simply returns to its pre-ice level -- or just what it is in Madras today.
But wait. Wasn't there also a recent Pentagon report about the impact of sudden climate change? Indeed. Last October, two Defense Department contractors considered what would happen if global warming suddenly disrupted the Gulf Stream circulation, and concluded that England's climate could resemble that of Siberia in as little as 15 years!
Well, this is about as plausible as "The Day After Tomorrow" (and the report's authors have about as much experience in climatology as the people who made the movie). Siberia is miserable because it's in the middle of a huge land mass surrounded by mountains and the Arctic Ocean. Cold air pools there in the winter, resulting in months where the temperature is largely below zero. For England to become Siberia, you would merely have to drain the Atlantic Ocean for a few thousand miles and build up three mountain ranges. But the earth's plates wouldn't allow mountains to form in the proper places. And even if they could, it would take at least about 14,999,985 more years than 15 for that to happen.
Is a Gulf Stream "failure" that would be sufficient to produce an ice age even possible? Ask MIT's Carl Wunsch, the world's authority on oceanic currents. He's very upset at these silly scenarios and believes they can harm efforts to reduce industrial emissions by subjecting the entire global warming issue to ridicule. (After all, Gore is the pitchman.) Wunsch recently wrote in a letter to Nature magazine that the only way to trigger a Gulf Stream-caused ice age "is either to turn off the wind system, or to stop the earth's rotation, or both."
Jeffery Godsick, spokesman for the film's distributor, Twentieth Century Fox, has been quoted saying that "the real power of the movie is to raise consciousness on the issue [of global warming]."
And the movie's producer, Mark Gordon, publicly agreed that "anything we can do to raise consciousness about the environment is a good thing. It's part of the reason we made this movie." So will "The Day After Tomorrow" have a political effect? Here's a scenario that may be more plausible than anything in the movie:
In June, after "Tomorrow" has been out for a week or two, Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman reintroduce a bill (S 139) to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in a fashion similar to the U.N.'s infamous Kyoto Protocol on global warming. It's expensive, it won't actually do anything measurable about the earth's temperature, and it only failed by 12 votes last fall.
In the Western United States, it's likely to be a hot, fiery summer. The New York Times editorial page has already blamed the drought there on global warming, even though the correlation between global temperature and Western drought is, statistically speaking, a big fat zero. But environmental fear creates political pressure, and plenty will be exerted on a handful of senators to switch their votes on S 139. After Bush vetoes a bill that passes a panicked House, Kerry exploits climate hysteria and knocks down one more state (maybe increasingly Democratic Arizona, burning?) than Gore did. Make that President-elect Kerry.
Can't happen? Well, in 1979, Jane Fonda starred in "The China Syndrome," another scientific impossibility, about a contained nuclear reactor meltdown, that coincided with a national panic over the accident at Three Mile Island (which killed no one and released only tiny amounts of radiation). Since then, we haven't approved building another nuclear plant -- the only major power source that doesn't emit gases capable of warming the planet.
Did implausible fiction influence our national energy system? Democrats with their eye on the presidency are no doubt fervently hoping that it did.
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