How does the science-fiction of 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow compare to the science of global climate change?



  1. 0 Votes

    In the summer of 2004, writer-director Roland Emmerich continued his tradition of unleashing big-budget disaster epics upon Hollywood screens. His antagonists had previously been rooted in the realm of far-out fiction – say, the city-shattering alien armada of 1996’s Independence Day, or the titular beastie of 1998’s Godzilla. But with 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow (Day)Emmerich made nature itself the villain. With unabashed sci-fi glee – Day promo blurbs proclaimed, “This year, a sweater won’t do,” and “Nature has spoken” – the film told a tale of nature’s global backlash to manmade global warming. Emmerich’s story has the planet’s warming melting the polar ice caps. The fresh water from the ice caps reduces the oceans’ salt level, which then lowers the temperature of global ocean currents. This in turn triggers a series of titanic weather events – tornadoes in Los Angeles, hail storms in Tokyo, blizzards in New Delhi, and a ‘superstorm’ over New York City. In a few short weeks, the planet becomes immersed in a Second Ice Age.

    Ice Storm

    Now, Day certainly didn’t freeze moviegoers’ hearts – or their wallets. It racked up over $500 million in worldwide ticket sales. But the question remains: in his lust for big-impact spectacle, how much did Emmerich’s science-fiction deviate from scientific truth? To shed light on this topic, let’s turn to two scientific authorities on climate change: the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

    Warmer Earth, Colder Water

    Day‘s sequence of disastrous events is based upon an established scientific theory known as “abrupt climate change”, which the Pew Center phrases thusly: “if a certain temperature level is reached, there may be an abrupt and large change in the climate.” In Day, man-made global warming melts the polar caps. This then stops Atlantic thermohaline circulation, a network of ocean currents that, according to Woods Hole, “transports heat throughout the planet”. And disasters ensue.

    Ice Storm

    This chain of events loosely matches with the Pew Center’s thoughts on abrupt climate change. The Pew Center believes that warmer (and less salty) oceans could in fact lead to a “complete shutdown” of the globe’s thermohaline circulation. However, only a “few models” have this taking place, and such a possibility is still very much up for debate. 

    Climate Change: How “Abrupt”?

    At the very end of Day, an astronaut stares out the window of the International Space Station – only to see that almost the entire world is encased in layers of snow and ice. It has taken only a few weeks for the world to get this way. 

    Both the Pew Center and Woods Hole report that this kind of climate change is “abrupt” climate change taken to an extreme level. The Pew Center considers “abrupt” climate change to be change that takes place over a number of decades – certainly not a number of weeks. Woods Hole directly refutes Day’s timeline; like the Pew Center, it defines “abrupt” climate change as change “taking place over the interval of a decade”.

    Earth-Shaking Events

    It’s not difficult to see why Day became such a worldwide hit. It boasted truly spectacular (and CGI-rendered) natural disasters. Yet these creations represent another significant skewing of scientific truth. 

    Here, Woods Hole presents the compelling scientific evidence against Day‘s scenarios. According to Woods Hole, two of Day‘s disasters – the giant tsunami that hits America’s eastern seaboard, and the ‘superhurricane’ that descends over New York City and brings on the Second Ice Age – are almost completely improbable. Such a tsunami could only reach heights of twenty feet – half of the forty-foot tower that Day unleashes – and would have little chance of striking the East Coast. And the hurricane is completely out of the question. Not only could a hurricane not reach the size of Day’s ‘superhurricane’, it could not freeze its environment. Day’s superhurricane is purportedly minus 150 degrees Fahrenheit – about twenty degrees colder than any temperature recorded in nature.     

    Ice Storm

    These two deviations, when placed alongside the above discrepancies, reveals Day as a piece of outlandish science-fiction that isn’t close to grounded in fact. While it has brought up legitimate concerns about climate change and the necessity of environmental stewardship, the globe’s next Ice Age certainly won’t be beginning the day after tomorrow.


  2. 0 Votes

    I don’t think too many people took the movie seriously-it wasnt a documentary nor was it presented as one. Emmerich has a history of big budget movies with amazing special effects. I think he took a concept, and brought it to the extreme. At the time it created buzz and people talked about global warming, but no one campaigning for climate change would cite the movie as reference.

  3. 0 Votes

    I’ll definitely agree that ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ is obviously meant to be entertainment, not education. What the other answer doesn’t clarify, is that the premise behind the movie’s super-cold hurricanes is that the cold air comes from upper layers of the atmosphere. According to what I remember reading in the news, that would not happen as the air would heat up on the way down due to being compressed to much higher pressure as well as by having plenty of time to be warmed up by the sun and heat emitted from the ground. The movie does make a good point though – if melting ice shuts down thermohaline currents, the climate will change significantly, especially in places that will no longer be warmed up by such currents. Just not on a scale of bringing an ice age

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