Day After Tomorrow Movie: Could Ice Age Occur Overnight?

Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
May 18, 2004
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 Emmerich—the man behind such popcorn fare as Independence Day and Godzilla—welcomes 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."

Global Superstorm

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.

Too Extreme

There is some evidence that the shutting down of the Gulf Stream has happened in the distant past, leading to the dramatic cooling of temperature over a few decades in some parts of the world. But most scientists agree that the abrupt climate change depicted in the movie could not happen.

"The Earth's climate is never going to flip in a matter of days the way it does in the movie," Worldwatch's Sawin said.

She worries that the catastrophic events in the film may be so extreme that audience members may not take the climate-change issue seriously.

"There is some concern that what the movie shows is so extreme that people will say, Oh, that could never happen, so I'm not going to worry about it," she said. "That blows a very serious issue out of proportion and could cause people who are skeptical to become even more skeptical."

Emmerich dismisses such worries. "People are smart enough to know this is a movie," he said, "and in a movie everything is more extreme."

No Science Fiction

Environmentalists see the movie as an opportunity to educate and hope the film will spark public concerns about climate change. The activist group is recruiting volunteers to hand out flyers at theaters when the movie is released. The flyers read: "Global warming isn't just a movie. It's your future."

Some observers speculate that the movie's distributor, 20th Century Fox, is trying to distance itself from what could be construed as a political message in the film. Having a big action movie labeled a serious "issue" film could have a negative impact on its box office prospects, observers argue.

But Emmerich believes entertainment and education can mix.

"Like many other people, I have this feeling that we're slowly but surely destroying our planet," he said. "I came [to this issue] because of science fiction, and then I realized it wasn't at all science fiction but something that is very real."

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