for National Geographic News
Snow falls in New Delhi. Tornadoes rip through Hollywood landmarks. Grapefruit- size hail pounds Tokyo. Manhattan is buried under hundreds of feet of snow. The ice age is here.
It may just be a movie. But to environmentalists, there is more than a kernel of truth in the catastrophic scenarios depicted in the upcoming summer flick The Day After Tomorrow. Some activists hope the special effects blockbuster, in which global warming leads to a new ice age, will spark debate about environmental damage.
"Climate change is already happening now, not the day after tomorrow," said Janet Sawin, director of the energy and climate program at the Worldwatch Institution in Washington, D.C. "I'm hoping more people will become more aware of this problem [as a result of the movie] and start thinking about what we can do to address it."
The film's director, German-born Roland Emmerichthe man behind such popcorn fare as Independence Day and Godzillawelcomes the debate.
"It is a movie that should not just entertain but also make people think," Emmerich said in a telephone interview. "It is not just science fiction but something that is very real."
In the movie, which opens May 28, climatologist Jack Hall (played by Dennis Quaid) warns that global warming could trigger an abrupt shift in the planet's climate. His fears are confirmed when the melting of the polar ice caps overnight pours huge amounts of fresh water into the oceans. The influx of fresh water shuts down the Gulf Stream, the ocean current that stabilizes the Northern Hemisphere's climate system. That unleashes a superstorm that brings with it a new ice age.
Emmerich, whose first movie in Germany was about a weather experiment gone awry, got the idea for The Day After Tomorrow from the book The Coming Global Superstorm, written by paranormal experts Art Bell and Whitley Strieber. As the title suggests, the book warns of a doomsday scenario similar to the one in Emmerich's movie.
"It read like science fiction and I quickly realized it would make for a great movie," Emmerich said. "I began researching and found the underlying science pretty real."
There is little doubt that global warming is real. In the last century the average temperature has climbed about 0.6 degrees Celsius (about 1 degree Fahrenheit) around the world. Most scientists say the higher temperatures are a result of an atmospheric increase in carbon dioxide, caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum.
Sea levels have risen 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) because of the expansion of warmer waters. A study in the science journal Nature this year predicted that climate change could drive more than a million species toward extinction by the year 2050. Many scientists also warn of a link between global warming and extreme weather events, like El Niño.