Posted on Fri, Jun. 04, 2004

Movie a wake-up call about climate change

Unfortunately, the slow changes in real life fail to capture our attention


Special to The Observer

Monday I awoke at 5:30 a.m. to a steadily and smoothly increasing roar of wind, like the sound of an approaching jet. There was almost continuous lightning, and the sky glowed an eerie purple. You don't have to be in Kansas to recognize these signs.

After a half-minute of steadily climbing drone, I had reached my limit of fear. We jerked the kids out of bed and ran to the basement.

Later, the local weather expert dismissed the possibility of a tornado. Tell that to the people west of us, where a string of acre-size patches of vegetation are flattened. Tornadoes do not seem to remain stable in mountainous terrain, but they can certainly try to form and die fighting for life.

The Friday before, it was raining in Boone as we went to see the opening of "The Day After Tomorrow." It had been a weeks-long cloudy streak reminiscent of the weather patterns in the early to mid-1980s. Only now, we had Florida-like thunderstorms every afternoon. This winter and spring I've noticed a lot of jet contrails seeding out, another pattern characteristic of the earlier era. Is our weather changing? How fast can it change? Can we have tornadoes in Boone? Or in Los Angeles, as in the flick?

It would be easy to point out the film's bad science -- there's lots of it. Notably, the time scales of change of weather and temperature are impossibly too short. You can't, for example, transfer heat out of an object arbitrarily fast. Even freshmen physics students know about the coefficient of heat transfer for materials.

But at least the dramatic climate shift in the movie got the attention of its victims -- deadly but alerting. Slow changes can be just as dangerous. It is said that if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out, but if you put it in pot of cold water and bring it to a boil, it will stay in and perish.

Slow changes in our climate are well documented in cores drilled in ice and in deep sea bottoms. Pollen counts, carbon dioxide concentrations, radioisotopes and basic geology paint a fairly complete picture of the temperature on our planet for the past 400,000 years.

Anthropologist and archaeology author Brian Fagan has written some very good popular books recounting these changes and their effects on civilization. In "The Little Ice Age," he recounts the killing effects of a 500-year cold snap on early Europeans, particularly the Scandinavians. The cooling was triggered by changes in ocean circulation and air masses, real effects actually correctly represented in the movie.

In "The Long Summer," Fagan expands the time of discussion to describe the overall warming after the last real ice age ended 15,000 years ago. It becomes clear that indeed the Earth has natural thermal variations due to a complex interplay of changes in the Earth's orbit and tilt, changing solar reflection due to ice, sea level variations due to ice melt, and the whims of ocean currents.

Added to these natural cycles are our modern contributions to the climate. The role of manmade carbon dioxide is agreed upon by most scientists and most scientific bodies and organizations. The data are certain: a steady increase in CO{-2} measured from a climatic observatory in Hawaii over several decades, reaching most historical peaks but on a much shorter time scale than usual. Global temperatures are rising in lock step with these trends.

Sadly, the movie represents political response to the threat described by science in a hauntingly familiar and true form, complete with a detached president and shot-calling VP.

The Bush administration dispensed with the Kyoto Accord by describing the science as "incomplete," demonstrating not only a disregard for the environment, but a misunderstanding of how science works.

Science is never "complete."

Theories are subject to change as new data are obtained. We must act on the best data at hand at any moment. A president must understand this.

We cannot entirely rule out a scenario similar to the movie, only with a time scale in decades instead of days -- some sort of global phase change that nobody thought of, the ultimate "whoops!"

We should be so lucky. At least that would be a sudden wakeup call, garnering our attention better than the slow rise in global temperature, sea level and frequency of bad storms predicted by the models and now occurring.

Instead, we may just slowly boil to death.

Daniel Caton

Daniel B. Caton is observatory director and astronomy professor at Appalachian State University. Write him at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608, or by e-mail at