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"The Day After Tomorrow" Movie

Is Climate Disaster Coming
"The Day After Tomorrow"?

The new climate disaster movie "The Day After Tomorrow" looks to be great entertainment. With wildly cool computer-generated tornadoes, mega-hurricane storm surge, and blinding blizzards, this movie is sure to fire the imagination of a public that is constantly beseiged with new worries about global warming and impending climate disaster.

How will "The Day After Tomorrow" affect the public's perception of the reality of climate change? Did past climate change occur, as the movie trailer implies, with a single super-storm that ushered in a new ice age? Is mankind's tinkering with the climate leading to a new and unpredictable weather event that will change the course of human history?

There is increasing evidence that past climate changes could have been abrupt -- changing over maybe 10-50 years. But this is a far cry from what is depicted in "The Day After Tomorrow". Our gradual introduction of more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will likely double the pre-industrial levels of this trace gas in the next 100 years. But the expected slow warming trend that results is unlikely to lead to rapid climate change.

Nevertheless, abrupt climate change is suddenly popular again. A recent, widely publicized research study has suggested that the ocean's "thermohaline" circulation that keeps the Earth's north polar region warmed by the flow of tropical water northward could suddenly shut down. This could conceivably lead to rapid climate change in Great Britain and western Europe, where a mini-ice age could develop in as little as tens of years. Indeed, this is the premise in "The Day After Tomorrow", where a wise old scientist (with a British accent, of course, lending credibility) announces that such a climate shift is indeed happening.

Unfortunately, scientists too frequently let fertile imaginations take over when hard facts are lacking. Other modelling efforts do not indicate a future shutdown of the ocean's thermohaline circulation, and some even strengthen it. The climate system is extremely complex, with many poorly-understood feedbacks. Because of this complexity, computerized climate models likely do not contain all of the negative feedbacks that try to restore the climate system to a balanced state. While abrupt climate change (as in "The Day After Tomorrow") is a possible result of global warming, the risk at this point is much more imaginary than real.

At the time of this writing (two months before "The Day After Tomorrow" opens), it seems likely the movie will lead to a new round of global warming hysteria. Our technological ability to create realistic computer-generated scenes of environmental catastrophe lends a certain realism to a movie. While "The Day After Tomorrow" will raise awareness of the global warming issue, it is unlikely to lead to the public having balanced and informed views on the subject.

While global warming is indeed real, it's magnitude is very uncertain. Some part of the 1 deg. F warming over the last century is likely the result of mankind's production of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use, while some is the result of coming out of the "Little Ice Age" of centuries past. The amount of future warming is also very uncertain. Climate models currently do not contain certain feedbacks that could limit the amount of warming in the next century, and so these models could be overestimating the amount of future warming. It is also important to remember that climate is always changing, and humans have always had to adapt to climate change.

What can we do about the problem? It is widely acknowledged that the "Kyoto Protocol" treaty to limit the production of greenhouse gases is too weak to have a measureable effect on global temperatures in the next 50 years. The changes necessary to forestall most of the future warming are so massive, they will require new and abundant sources of energy that don't rely on petroleum or coal.

Some people believe that legislative action is necessary to force industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, to the extent that this costs money, the consumer and the investor will bear the cost. Other people believe that new energy technologies will come as a natural result of economic market forces, without the need for legislative action. In this view, as fossil fuels gradually become more expensive in the coming decades, new technologies will be developed to meet the need. While solar and wind energy sound attractive, their energy intensity is relatively low,and their cost is still relatively high. While they can contribute somewhat to our energy needs, large areas of land would have to be covered with solar collectors or wind turbines in order to generate substantial energy. Unless most countries decide that nuclear power is acceptable (like France has), we will be needing a new energy technology.

But in the meantime, enjoy "The Day After Tomorrow" for what it is -- science fiction entertainment -- not a climate forecast.

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