Hero of the western world and palaeoclimatologist, Jack Hall.
Hero of the western world and palaeoclimatologist, Jack Hall, from “The Day After Tomorrow”.

By Claire

We either love or hate earth “science” themed movies. I personally love them, even the really bad ones. Movies like “Twister“, “The Day After Tomorrow“, “The Core“, “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano” are among my favourites.

Now, I realise that the “science” in some of these movies is pretty terrible (who knew we only needed to stick concrete traffic partitions in the way of lava to stop it flowing?) but when it comes down to it, they’re actually doing us scientists a huge favour.

This was actually the topic of a really great talk I went to at the AMOS Conference a few weeks ago. The speaker was Anne Henderson-Sellers, who is a brilliant public speaker, and really entertaining to listen to.

The focus of her talk was on how we should be embracing these Hollywood “science” movies, not taring them apart. When she said this I was genuinely shocked. Where there really scientists out there who thought that these movies were a bad thing for science? Apparently there were!

The key movie she referred to is one of my all time favourites, “The Day After Tomorrow.” If you haven’t seen this movies (then you really should!!!), it’s about the Gulf Stream current in the North Atlantic shutting down, and plunging the Northern Hemisphere into an ice age. Now I know this sounds pretty ridiculous, but it’s not! It’s based on a peer reviewed scientific theory. Believe it or not, this is exactly what happened (as best we know, minus Dennis Quaid) during the Younger Dryas period, about 11,000 years ago.

The Younger Dryas as seen from ice cores. From Alley 2000.
The Younger Dryas as seen from ice cores. From Alley 2000.

Of course in reality, this process took a lot longer than a few days, but some estimates suggest that the warming associated with the end of the Younger Dryas could have occurred in as little as 50 years, which in climate terms is lightning fast!!

Now, I know that there are a lot of scientific issues with the movie, but generally, I think they do a pretty good job of introducing some key climate science concepts.

(Jump to 6min in for the scientific explanation for the movie)

There has been and is being research done on the stability of the global oceanic circulation. There are scientists monitoring the salinity of the Gulf Stream and looking for any hints that it might be slowing down. It is a very real possibility that a Younger Dryas style event may occur in the future – it’s just not very likely.

I don’t think that the insistence in the movie that the global overturning will shut down is enough to discredit the science of the whole movie. I personally found the “Day After Tomorrow” to be a hugely important movie for my career, and in fact prompted me to study climate in the first place.

I also regularly use it to describe the type of work that I’m doing in my PhD. Ok, so I’m not exactly working on the exact same topic as the movie, but people who have watched the movie gain a greater understanding of large-scale feedbacks and changes that can occur in the climate system, and that is closer to what I am examining.

I actually have simulated a “Younger Dryas” type event where I collapse the global overturning using a climate model and look to see what happens. In fact, a lot of people do these types of analyses.

The Core - go see it!
The Core – go see it!

I really think that we should be embracing Hollywood “science” for its ability to start scientific conversations. Sure, people who only watch those movies will not get an accurate understanding of the real science of say, the Earth’s interior by watching “The Core”, but they don’t need to! That’s where we, as scientists, step in to fill in the blanks!

Hollywood science movies are a great starting point for discussing our work with people. I don’t need to explain global overturning, I just need to ask people if they’ve seen “The Day After Tomorrow”. That describes the consequences of putting too much fresh water into the North Atlantic in a more exciting way than I ever could.

I just use that as a starting point.