Day After Tomorrow

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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NOSW

No Other Scientists in the World. Apart from the two or three characters in the film, nobody else in the entire worldwide scientific community is aware anything unusual is going on. Nobody else seems to be aware of the huge tidal waves, plagues of locusts and frogs, rain of blood, global slaughter of first-born, etc.


Day After Tomorrow (NOSW)

You know how some people come home from a scary movie and sleep with the lights on? My wife came home from this one and slept with the electric blanket on. In June. Admittedly it had been an unusually cold and wet spring.

Conspicuously missing from this movie are most of my usual ratings. There are a couple of pompous asses, but they all survive and even live to admit they were wrong. There’s an attractive female NASA scientist, but she acts more like a colleague than the clich Hot Babe Scientist. The kids in the film are stranded but use their intelligence to survive when the vast majority of the people around them don’t. No doubt about it: the weather and the special effects are the stars of this film, and the human characters are there mostly for the plot to happen to. Although this film is far-fetched in a lot of ways, it's mostly a matter of degree rather than kind. Most of the phenomena depicted actually exist, but the film has them happening on vastly greater scales and faster rates than anything known. But I do give it an NOSW because if you believe the film, only a couple of scientists in the world are aware there was a sharp cooling event at the end of the last Ice Age.

The film opens with a breathtaking aerial approach to the Larsen Ice Shelf of Antarctica, where an infinitesimal speck on the ice eventually grows into a small encampment. A routine core drilling suddenly turns deadly when a fissure opens right under the driller. As the fissure widens, lead scientist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid)  leaps across the fissure to salvage the core samples, then leaps back and nearly falls into the crevasse. We see the crevasse grow until it runs from horizon to horizon, splitting the encampment in two.

Why the dramatic leap? The team was most likely put there by helicopter. When they radio back that the shelf is breaking up they will surely be rescued the same way. So why not just have the chopper hop across the fissure to pick up the cores?

Next we see Jack Hall at a meeting in New Delhi presenting his findings that there was an abrupt cooling event 10,000 years ago due to an increase in greenhouse gases. In response to a question, he points out that melting of polar ice could dump enough fresh water into the North Atlantic to shut down the North Atlantic Current. With the current no longer carrying heat to the North Atlantic, the climate moderation the current brings would also shut down, resulting in a centuries-long cold spell.

With due allowance for movie simplification, this part is real science. There was a climatic cooling about 11,000 years ago that resulted in cooling and readvances of the Pleistocene ice sheets. One theory is that either rapid melting of the glaciers or sudden drainage of glacially dammed meltwater lakes in Canada released a thick layer of fresh water onto the North Atlantic, preventing the Gulf Stream from exchanging heat with the atmosphere. But:

Weather Gone Wild

Hall is pooh-poohed by the Vice President of the United States, who is more concerned about the effects on the economy of reducing greenhouse emissions. As he leaves the meeting, a Scottish scientist, Terry Rapson (Ian Holm) expresses interest in Hall's work and they leave to discuss theories. Snow flurries are falling. In New Delhi. But weather is going crazy around the world. Killer hail smashes Tokyo (hailstones big enough to kill are well documented), but the wildest anomaly strikes Los Angeles. Supercell thunderstorms spawn a swarm of tornadoes that devastate the city.

There is no harder special effect to get right than a tornado. These are a lot better than the ones in Twister, which created the impression that ordinary dull overcast days can spawn tornadoes, and which failed completely to catch the violence and menace of real tornado weather. The sky we see here really does have the blue-black churning clouds of a real tornado, and the scene where the first tornado touches down is truly excellent. But the other funnels just don’t look right. They’re too fuzzy and not sharp-edged enough. Special effects people seem to be too concerned with showing the rotation of tornadoes to let the images speak for themselves. They also seem to feel they have to show the entire tornado from ground to cloud, with the result that they don't capture the real immensity of these storms. The very best tornado on film is still in The Wizard of Oz.

And even granted that tornadoes are novelties in Los Angeles, no news chopper pilot is going to fly toward one, let alone between them. Reporters may be thicker-skinned in L.A. than the Midwest, but no Midwestern reporter would stand in the open with a tornado in the background a fraction of a mile away. This guy pays for his folly when an airborne billboard comes from behind and swats him like a fly. The effect of the tornadoes on the buildings is probably pretty close to reality. Direct hits by tornadoes on major structures are pretty rare, but it’s very likely that a powerful tornado striking a modern steel-frame structure would pulverize the exterior while not destroying the steel frame core, just like the movie shows. The irresistible force loses to the immovable object.

The Cooling Begins

Jack's son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal, best known as Homer Hickam in October Sky) heads for New York for an academic competition. The flight is a bit rough, as would be expected when the pilot flies directly into an active thunderstorm cell. Sam's team faces tough competition from an elite academy, setting up a potential Snotty Rich Kid versus Plucky Underdog scenario. During a break in the competition, the teams visit the Museum of Natural History where they see a diorama of a mammoth that was "frozen instantly." It even had its last meal in its stomach. News flash here. Almost everything that dies, especially in nature, has its last meal in its stomach. But the flash-frozen mammoth sets the stage for the preposterous instant freezing that happens later in the film. It probably also accounts for why the museum is called the Museum of Natural History in the movie and not the American Museum of Natural History.

Rapson returns to his research institute on a mountain in Scotland to learn that sounding buoys in the Atlantic are starting to report sudden cooling. Soon the weather over the British Isles turns downright nasty. A huge cyclonic weather disturbance develops an eye like a hurricane. We overhear a radio bulletin reporting that residents of Belfast are being urged to evacuate south to Dublin.

There really are cold-water hurricanes. They are not called hurricanes, but in structure, wind speed and mechanics they are very similar. They form in places like the Bering Sea or the Norwegian Sea in the winter. Tropical hurricanes are powered by air rising from warm oceans. Cold water hurricanes are powered by air rising off cold oceans into intensely cold air above. It’s the temperature contrast that does it. So cold water hurricanes can have 100 mph winds and -20 F temperatures. Nasty things to encounter at sea. But, as Rapson points out, hurricanes (warm or cold water variety) don’t form over land.

A flight of RAF helicopters sent to rescue the Royal Family flies into the eye and discovers that the air in the eye is so cold that their fuel freezes (-150 F, we’re told). A crewman who tries to escape from a downed chopper freezes to death instantly as soon as he opens the door.

There are an amazing number of things wrong with the physics of these storms:

The kids are trapped in New York when the FAA suspends all air traffic because of the violent weather. All? There's no calm air anywhere in the US? There are no weather forecasters capable of finding safe routes for flights? Days of torrential rains overwhelm the sewers, flood the subways and tunnels, and eventually shut down all rail traffic. With no prospect of leaving the city commercially, and power out, Sam's team and one of the rich rivals try to hike crosstown to link up with his brother. Before long they realize that with no traffic signals and streets becoming flooded, the city is utterly impassable.

Rapson's mountain research center in Scotland is completely isolated, and when the generator runs out of fuel, he and his two colleagues realize they are doomed. Wait a minute. This place is on a mountain in Scotland. Surely they must have planned that it would be isolated for long periods in the winter. This place should have enough supplies to last for months at least. But the generator runs out of fuel after a couple of days? And the place isn't well enough insulated to handle the subzero weather even a normal winter would throw at it? Rapson's last act (in the movie at least) is to send his data to Jack Hall.

Superstorms

Nobody else's computer model can cope with the violent swings in the weather. Jack decides the only hope is to use the computer model he has developed to model the Ice Age cooling episode. His model shows three giant cyclones over North America, Europe and Siberia growing in intensity over the next few days until they envelop the entire northern hemisphere. Interestingly enough, the storms are perfect spirals on the map with no distortion in the polar regions.

The growing superstorm eventually hurls a 200-foot storm surge at New York. I don’t know exactly what it would take to generate such a surge, or even if any physically possible storm system could do it, but this sequence is awesome. The incoming wave first slams the base of the Statue of Liberty, sending spray above the statue, then it builds in height until the statue is immersed to chest level. The storm surge appears to travel up the Hudson River, then turn and strike the entire West Side broadside, something I doubt very much.  The water then cascades through the streets. The kids narrowly escape death because surging walls of water are easy to outrun and take refuge in the New York Public Library. With cell phones virtually out, Sam has the bright idea of using a pay phone, which would be powered by its own power system. He contacts his father, who warns him that the rain will soon turn to a lethal blizzard that nobody can survive unprotected. Sam is nearly trapped by rising flood waters before escaping to bring word to his friends.

Even if we allow that a 200-foot storm surge could inundate Manhattan, the movie doesn’t offer any coherent reason for why the water doesn’t go down. Although the loss of life at ground level would be huge, there would be a lot of survivors in upper stories of buildings. But continued flooding would create a huge survival problem, since almost all the life-support in Manhattan (grocery stores, pharmacies, and so on) is at street level.

It’s also quite improbable that a ship would be able to drift through the flooded city streets before grounding at the library, which is pretty far into Manhattan. Especially not sailing up Fifth Avenue past the main entrance, since it would have to turn a corner somehow.

Meanwhile Jack decides to head to New York to rescue his son but before leaving he is ordered to brief the President. He explains that the superstorms are going to last 7-10 days and that it will be impossible to rescue the population of the northern states. He draws a line roughly from Washington to San Francisco and recommends evacuating everyone south of that line. When I saw this scene in a trailer, I thought he meant move people from the north to below that line, but no, he means forget the people north of the line and evacuate everyone living south of the line, to Texas, Florida, or Mexico.

Out In The Cold

Sure enough, the rain turns to snow. Eventually the water freezes, and when other survivors are spotted trudging through the snow, the cop who has been in charge of the survivors in the library tells them to start heading south. (Here in Green Bay we know a lot about going out on the ice and it takes more than just a couple of days of cold to be safe to walk on.) One of the survivors says she got through on her cell phone to her sister in Memphis, which is being evacuated. So they're going to walk from New York to below the latitude of Memphis. In a blizzard. Sam warns them that they cannot survive outside, but only a couple of them listen. We see the refugees shortly afterward taking a rest break under a bridge with the Brooklyn Bridge in view, a route that makes seems to make no sense whatsoever if they want to head south. They may be planning to cross the Verazzano Bridge to Staten Island, but why not just walk across the frozen Hudson River to New Jersey? For that matter, why hide under a bridge instead of in a building? The few who remain at the library take to burning books for fuel because the wood in the bookshelves, tables, and chairs and door trim apparently doesn't burn. Also there is no coal or diesel fuel in the ship outside the front door.

Jack and his two field partners head north and manage to get their vehicle beyond Philadelphia before plowing into a wrecked vehicle in the blowing snow. They have good Arctic gear and head out on foot. As one wag on a chat site put it: "Washington to New York by car takes forever, but on foot in a blizzard it's not too bad." But while crossing the glass roof of a shopping mall that’s completely buried by the snow, one of them breaks through the glass. He first cuts his gear loose, then finally himself (shades of Vertical Limit) to prevent the others from being pulled down with him. Amazingly, there are no shoppers or employees stranded in this mall by the blizzard.

This film never really specifies how cold it is. We see the two surviving hikers with bare hands as they try to rescue their friend, something that would be insanity if it were, say, 30 below zero. On the other hand, if the temperature is above zero, most people in the northern states could ride out a two week storm. With houses all but buried in the snow, even with power out it would not be much below freezing. Snow is a good insulator. Some people would freeze, starve, or eat their pets, and most would emerge very bored, cold, and hungry, but a very large number would survive. For that matter, the film never mentions a date, though foliage shots in Washington early in the film suggest late fall.

Dad is only a few miles from his son when both are imperiled by the eye of the storm and its associated supercold air. When they see the skies clear they know they have scant minutes to seek shelter. Dad breaks through the roof of a deserted Wendy’s (are they really that desperate for product placement?) while Sam and his friends race for the shelter of the library. The rendering of the eyewall, I have to say, is outstanding. We follow the descent of the supercold air down the Empire State Building, where we see it whitening surfaces and shattering windows from the sudden cold. The surface scenes alternate with views from space, where the cyclones are rendered with marvelous cloud texturing. However, we see two adjacent cyclones, presumably the ones over Canada and Europe, with nothing in between. Since the winds would be blowing in opposite directions, I'd expect all kinds of turbulence and wind shear where the storms interact.

In return for cancellation of all Latin American debt, Mexico agrees to allow U.S. refugees to enter. It was nice that the film resisted the temptation to have us force our way in militarily. On the other hand, one scene shows a refugee camp captioned "Mexicali." Since Mexicali is immediately south of the border (just opposite its U.S. counterpart, Calexico), why didn't we just set up camps in southern California? Is it really that much warmer just over the border? Is Nogales, Arizona a frozen wasteland while Nogales, Sonora is livable?

The final scenes are aboard the International Space Station where the astronauts confirm the storms are dissipating and they can see the ground for the first time in a long while. They look down on Europe, showing Italy and Sicily completely snow covered and only the far southern tip of Spain free of snow. Then we see North America, with great rafts of ice in the Gulf of Maine, the Great Lakes frozen solid, and snow as far south as the Carolinas and stretching west. Interestingly enough, there were no elevation effects since the snow line crosses the Rockies with almost no deviation. I’d expect to see mountain snow extending far into Mexico. With the Russian launch center under snow and the U.S. economy in tatters, I wonder if the astronauts are beginning to get worried about getting home.

In fact, the snow cover is a lot less than during the hard winters of the late 1970’s, when there were times when satellite imagery showed snow cover on the ground in all fifty states. The Great Lakes never froze over completely, but they came as close as ever in history.

As noted earlier, there’s a huge difference between a cooling event when the glaciers still covered most of Canada and the same event now. For openers, it doesn’t matter how much snow falls during the superstorms if the following summer is even somewhat warm. We might expect some snow to linger in northern Canada and the Adirondacks but not in New York City. So if we did trigger a cooling episode like the one 11,000 years ago, the result would not be to lock New York in ice. More likely it would be cooler, shorter summers, shorter growing seasons and reduced farmland, and widespread famines. The result would be every bit as grim as in this film, but wouldn’t lend itself to glitzy special effects.

The last word is from a chat site on IMDB, where someone noted "Our dependence on fossil fuels will lead to a global catastrophe, just like it did 10,000 years ago."


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Created 16 June, 2004,  Last Update 05 April, 2011

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