Posted by: bkivey | 19 November 2010

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

The Day After Tomorrow is a feature film released in 2004 where the theme is the onset of an ice age brought about by anthropogenic global climate change. Between theatrical receipts and DVD sales the film took in nearly $655 million. I have never seen the film, but I have read the review by Prof. William Hyde, reprinted below.

 The best summary of the movie comes from “The Simpsons”

  “It’s cold and there are wolves” – Abe.

   Details follow. 

The movie is at its most stunningly accurate in its portrayal of paleoclimatologists. Paleoclimatologists are notoriously brave and of course very fit.  Nary a one of us would hesitate to jump a widening crevasse – twice – while wearing arctic gear – to recover some ice cores which would take 2-3 hours to re-drill.  We’re watching out for *your* tax dollars.  Score one for the movie.

 Paleoclimatologists are also notoriously handsome/beautiful, indeed, the envy and despair of other scientists (because frostbite gives the skin such a youthful appearance). I cannot fault the producers for failing to cast realistically good-looking people in these roles (Dennis Quaid barely qualifies as handsome enough) but I suspect that there just aren’t enough good looking actors in Hollywood to populate a typical paleoclimatic working group.

Also, we think nothing of writing 50,000 lines of flawless code in 48 hours.  Unlike Jeff Goldblum we don’t do it while drunk.  We could if we are allowed to, but NOAA has fallen victim to “alcoholic correctness”.

 Now I’m through saying positive things.

The silliest thing in the movie is probably intentional, and has has nothing to do with science.  Our spunky group of survivors (three high school students, a street person and his dog, a librarian, etc) are stuck in the NY public  library, their only source of heat an old fireplace.  The have to burn something, but what?  The camera pans lovingly over long wooden tables, chairs, paneling.  But what do they burn? Books, books and only books.  And it’s a roaring fire. True, they do burn the tax code first.

At one point we see them breaking up chairs, and I felt that, perhaps, one of them had read in a book somewhere that wood will burn, but I should have known better. Who reads fuel? They use the backs of the chairs for snowshoes, and as far as I can tell never bother to burn the leftover fragments. Perhaps *this* film should have been titled “Fahrenheit 451”. Or “Fahrenheit -151”.  Both work.

One character does cling closely to a Gutenberg bible, lest some pyromaniac decide it would burn real good.

After the introductory crevasse broad jump we skip to a climate conference in Delhi – where it is snowing and, far less likely, Dick Cheney (I forget the name of the veep in  the film, but it’s Cheney, no doubt) is in attendance. Almost the first thing Quaid’s character says is (paraphrase): 

“We know that North America and Eurasia are only habitable because of the thermohaline circulation”.

 Now, kudos to the producers for getting the words “thermohaline circulation” into a movie, but even they must know that much of North America and Eurasia was inhabited, indeed, *during* the last ice age. By people without central heating, for that matter. And while we all learned, incorrectly, in school that “Europe would freeze except for the Gulf Stream”, I don’t recall reading anywhere that, say, North Carolina just doesn’t get enough sun to keep warm (looks out of window – well, it *is* cloudy).

The event Quaid is talking about, a cooling about 8000 years ago, is real.  It’s severity is exaggerated, but I find that acceptable.  Nobody’s going to watch a movie where it gets slightly cooler in Wisconsin and outdoor pool sales plummet in Edmonton.

Conservation of energy? Violated. Wide swaths of the North Atlantic cool by 13 degrees (as scientist is talking to scientist one would assume Centigrade, but the number is actually Fahrenheit taken, I believe, from a model study of thermohaline collapse by Manabe and Stouffer). Where does this vast amount of  energy go?  Not into the storms (mechanical equivalent of heat is inadequate).  It just goes away.

Which brings up the question of just what *is* powering the three Arctic hypercanes which bring on the new and improved ice age.  As they spend much time on land, the ocean heat loss can’t be doing the job.  They are more avenging angels than storms.  Actually,  could all that fluffy white cloud (seen from space) be intended to evoke an angel’s white robes?  Which would explain why the storms stop at borders, freezing out the evil, polluting Americans and Europeans, while not touching Mexico or North Africa (the Atlas mountains are snow free, Spain covered).  Cyclonic avenging angels.

There are almost too many minor errors to mention: A storm surge is *not* a tidal wave.  People, particularly if already in water up to their waists, *cannot* outrun a tidal wave.  The New York public library building will not withstand a tidal wave.  Und so weiter.

The funniest scene in  the movie (and I’m sure it was intentional) has our friends outrunning frost. As the -150F air hits Manhattan, we see its motion by the rapid formation of instant frost in the corridors of the NY library.  Frost moves, like most movie monsters, just slowly enough for our heros to escape.  And like other movie monsters, when the characters are able to close a door just before being caught, the Frost Monster does its best to get through. The inside of the door turns white (apparently wood has taken on the conducting properties of superfluid helium but the air in the room is a sufficient insulator).

As to that -150 F air.  The hyperhyperhyper Arctic hurricanes draw air rapidly down from the tropopause to the surface, so rapidly that “it doesn’t have time to warm up”. This is like the old joke, “I have to write this letter fast before I run out of ink”.  Descending air does not warm because it gains heat from its surroundings, it warms because it is compressed. And as the surface pressure in the eye of the storm doesn’t seem to cause anyone shortness of breath, I’d guess it to be at least  700 mb.  So the air would be warm.  As a matter of fact tropopause air isn’t at -150 F anyway.  More of a balmy -90.

OK, that’s a rather esoteric point for a movie, even one that uses phrases like “thermohaline circulation”.  They had to flash-freeze the Mammoths somehow.

The characters in the movie would have to be massively deepened to be called shallow.  The major conflict is that of the Quaid character, who has missed much of his son’s upbringing owing to his penchant for jumping crevasses on remote ice shelves.  His wife’s anger at this I rate at 137 MilliPeeves, where one Peeve equals the feeling you get then the coffee shop runs out of your favourite creamer, and you have to use your second favourite. This is understated acting.

This guilt drives him to extreme stupidity.  After telling his son, stuck in the NY public library, to on no account go outside he decides to make the trip, alone, from snowy Washington to icy NY.  I’m not sure why, other than so he can die with his son (he doesn’t seem to be carrying arctic gear for the three students he knows are there), but note that  he has to make much of this trip *outside*.  Nobody seems to note that the trip is utterly unnecessary, resulting only in the death of one of his friends, who foolishly decline to let him go alone.  In the end they are evacuated by helicopter when the storm ends *just as he had predicted*.

Not to be outdone in heroism the wife remains behind in a Washington hospital with a young cancer survivor who can’t be moved except via ambulance.  Though the president doesn’t make it out alive, she and the kid  get safely to Mexico. Where Dick Cheney, now converted to environmentalism, says we will treat the planet better in the future.

Nobody seems to wonder why, with much of Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California snow free, the US government had to set up shop in Mexico city.  I’m sure Puerto Rico felt most offended.

 The son is having typical teenage trouble telling an attractive girl that he is kinda-not-attracted to her. There’s almost some plot here when she meets a too-rich, too-handsome too-tall preppie, but he turns out to be a good chap (everybody is good except Cheney and a few people we see for a second or two).  She gets sick, they find out what is wrong via a book they somehow failed to burn, and get medicine for her in the movie’s most surreal scene (via a Russian ship that has been frozen in the ice just in front of the library).  The helpful Russians have labeled their antibiotics in English.

In short, This movie is to climate science as Frankenstein is to heart transplant surgery.

 But there’s some intentional humour (most of which I have spoiled for you now, I guess), unintentional humour, fun pictures of disaster, destruction of the remaining part of the “hollywoodland” sign, ice, and snow, lots of things falling down, freezing (chills, if not thrills), and loud noises.

William Hyde, EOS Department, Duke University

How To Tell When It’s A Good Day

When you find two $50 bills on the platform of the train station during the middle of the day, as happened to me today. There wasn’t anyone else around, and they’d been there long enough to get soaked in the rain. Win!

This find is similar to the $67 I found at a bus stop last year and the $40 I found sticking out of an ATM slot the year before. Not only can you save money by taking public transit, apparently you can make money, too.

AL Cy Young

Congratulations to the Mariners Felix Hernandez for coming in first (21 of 28 first-place votes) in the balloting for the 2010 AL Cy Young Award. While many didn’t think his 13 – 12 record merited consideration for the honor, his other numbers, the ones he could control, like ERA (2.27), opponent’s batting average (.212), innings pitched (249 2/3) and strikeouts (232), were far and away the class of the league. The fact that he managed to put together a winning record on a team that had the fewest runs in the majors (513) surely counted with the voters.

Mr. Hernandez has been a joy to watch during his outings and Mariner Nation looks forward to more of the same next season.

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