By Mary O’KEEFE
Over the weekend, with the few minutes I had free, I turned on television and saw the film “The Day After Tomorrow.” I was transfixed. It is a ridiculous film that came out in 2004. I realize it was a “hit-over-the-head ‘climate change is dangerous’” movie but – oh my goodness. The real scary thing about climate change is that it happens rather slowly – slowly for regular humans but really fast on the evolutionary scale. In this movie it was raining, then a bunch of scientists said, “Oh no, it’s melting” then all of a sudden there’s a wall of water, then ice, then the Ice Age happened – but it only affected parts of the Northern Hemisphere. There was a lot of “I told you so” and “You should have listened” moments but for the most part if you were outside in New York, for example, instant climate change killed you.
I first became aware of climate change in the ’70s while in school as it pertained to overpopulation. In college, I learned more about climate change and then, after moving to Crescenta Valley and attending the free monthly seminars at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), I learned even more but, still, “The Day After Tomorrow” was a little too much. That was until my very wet dog, that had been outside, jumped on the sofa with me and I realized it was raining again. I have lost count of how many atmospheric rivers have gone across California in recent days (most reports indicate nine).
And now, taking into account the rain that seems to be never ending, the flooding, the fatalities, the people trapped in snow, the road closures and emergency responders having difficulty even reaching people, and 18 million people under flood warning in California alone, these scenarios are similar to “The Day After Tomorrow.” Could this 2004 film, which seemed so outrageous, actually be closer to our 2023 reality?
The film’s plot line centers on a collapse of something called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which was brought on by climate change. AMOC is a real thing; it is a large system of ocean currents that carry warm water from the tropics northward into the North Atlantic, according to the MET office, the national meteorological service for the UK.
So although AMOC is real science, in the film this effect caused sudden extreme weather throwing the Earth into an immediate ice age. That is stretching reality for entertainment – and film running time – but two studies in 2015 seemed to show that global warming could shut down the circulation of the oceans, similar to the theory put forth in “The Day After Tomorrow,” dropping vast stretches of Asia into drought and exposing the whole Northern Hemisphere to severe ice and snow, according to an MSNBC article published in 2015.
If this were to happen, gradual climate change, when the planet warms steadily, would be sudden. Jud Partin was a lead author of one of the studies, supported by the National Science Foundation and published in the journal Nature Communication, as MSNBC reported.
“In the movie they defy the laws of physics,” Partin told MSNBC, referring to hurricanes that form over land and other impossible weather. “But they got the climate science more or less right.”
Although the film is absolute science fiction, there is some real science to back up concerns about potentially irreversible changes in our climate within a couple of decades that would affect our communities, health, infrastructure and ecosystems, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).
There are some potential “tipping points” in the Earth’s climate system that will result in substantial change.
“The National Research Council report ‘Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises’ identifies potential abrupt changes in the ocean (which could result in rising sea levels and influence ocean circulation), the atmosphere (which could increase the frequency and intensity of extreme events), at high latitudes (including loss of Arctic sea ice), and ecosystems (species shifts, extinctions and rapid state changes),” according to C2ES. “The current pace of global warming, spurred by the human release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, brings an increased risk of more frequent and intense heat waves, higher sea levels and more severe droughts, wildfires and downpours.”
“The Day After Tomorrow,” like most science fiction, takes some truth and then expands on it to be more entertaining but, like most science fiction, it can be a warning of things to come – a warning that what the sci-fi imagination can dream, no matter how exaggerated at the time, can become a frightening reality.
Because this is still Women’s History Month, I would like to point out that at its core the film was about family. Dad (Dennis Quaid) is preoccupied with his work and his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) worshipped him but wanted more time with him and mom (Sela Ward) who, I think, didn’t get enough screen time. Ward played Dr. Lucy Hall who, with the world falling apart, was concerned about her son but understood her husband was the best chance to find him. However, she never left her post as a doctor caring for all the displaced, injured and ill people who were suffering from the extreme weather. So while the dad was doing what he could to call attention to the situation and help navigate the catastrophic weather, this mom – this strong woman – was saving lives, without crying, wringing her hands or even looking for men to help; she just did her job like we have seen so many women do throughout the centuries and lately as they stayed at their hospital’s post during the pandemic. And that is not science fiction – it is just fact.
Right now there is no ice age predicted for this week; however, we are facing more rain. The storm system that went through Tuesday and Wednesday of this week brought a couple of inches of rain – 2.38 inches in La Cañada Flintridge according to Mike Wofford, meteorologist at NOAA.
“The next potential [storm] is toward the middle of next week,” Wofford said.
There is not a lot of detail on the upcoming rain but it does not look like it will bring us colder weather, or snow, in the lower elevations.