UW Today

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May 28, 2004

UW scientists say new Hollywood climate thriller is so bad it’s good

News and Information

A much-publicized new action thriller on the perils of climate change hits theaters today, but University of Washington climate experts agree moviegoers can rest assured that a real-life version of “The Day After Tomorrow” won’t be anything like what they see on the screen.

“As a climate scientist, it was a little disheartening to see such a gross distortion of the science,” said Gerard Roe, an assistant professor of Earth and space sciences. “As a movie goer, it was poorly written, badly acted, inconsistent even on its own terms, and enormous fun. In short, it’s everything a summer blockbuster should be.”

“The Day After Tomorrow” is a special-effects extravaganza portraying a fanciful version of what could happen if a number of factors converged to trigger an extremely rapid change of global climate. Among the calamities are huge waves pummeling New York City, tornadoes lashing Los Angeles and an Arctic deep freeze shrouding the temperate zones of the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

More than 30 UW faculty and students in climate science previewed the film Wednesday night at Seattle’s Neptune Theatre. While they agree that global climate change is an indisputable fact and that it will have some dire consequences for humans, they say the results won’t be anything like what is depicted in the movie. For instance, the film’s unlikely sudden freezing has people fleeing toward more equatorial locations.

“The movie was very entertaining with nice special effects,” said Dennis Hartmann, UW atmospheric sciences chairman. “But the depiction of a new ice age resulting from global warming turns the evidence upside down. The ocean is unlikely to be able to reverse the effect of greenhouse gases and cause our climate to get colder instead of warmer. It is more likely that Americans will be trying to get into Canada to cool down than to get into Mexico to warm up. We are more likely to be bitten by mosquitoes carrying tropical diseases than by Arctic wolves.”

Hartmann said the film portrays some so-called natural events that in fact violate the laws of physics, “but it did provide drama and some exciting visual images.”

“A tidal wave could overrun New York City, but probably only if a big part of the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets slide rapidly into the ocean, and that is likely only if the north and south poles warm up a lot, not cool down. Sea level goes down when ice sheets grow,” he said.

The scientists note that there is near unanimous agreement among the world’s climate researchers that climate is changing, in part because of human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels. The coming changes, they say, will affect temperature, water supplies and even the ability of some native plants and animals to survive in some regions.

Despite its shortcomings, the scientists welcome the film as a means of focusing public attention on the real issues of climate change and global warming.

“I definitely think this film provides us with a teaching moment,” said Richard Gammon, UW professor of chemistry and of oceanography.

“Yes, the science is almost all wrong, but this provides a hook to tell the public what climate science does in fact predict, and with what level of confidence.”


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For more information, contact:
Hartmann at (206) 543-7460 or dennis@atmos.washington.edu
Gammon at (206) 221-6744, (206) 221-6175 or gammon@u.washington.edu 
Roe at (206) 543-4980
Kevin Rennert, atmospheric sciences doctoral student, (206) 543-9144 or rennert@atmos.washington.edu