OY VEY: We’re closer to a ‘Day After Tomorrow’ ice age than we thought
The oceans crash against skyscrapers, making aquatic tunnels of Manhattan streets. Heavy layers of snow pile on endlessly, burying entire civilizations in canopies of white. Eventually, liquid turns to ice, and life as we know it is threatened by an eternal freeze.
This is the harrowing disaster scenario of “The Day After Tomorrow,” a 2004 science fiction film directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Based on an imagined future of accelerated global warming, the movie was a major box office hit — it grossed over $500 million worldwide — but climatologists quickly took aim at its scientific value.
Patrick J. Michaels, a noted climate change skeptic, wrote in USA Today after the film’s release, “As a scientist, I bristle when lies dressed up as ‘science’ are used to influence political discourse. … Each one of these phenomena is physically impossible.”
He joined a chorus of critics who deemed the film wildly counterfactual. Yahoo featured “The Day After Tomorrow” in a top 10 list of scientifically inaccurate movies, while Duke University paleoclimatologist William Hyde declared, “This movie is to climate science as Frankenstein is to heart transplant surgery.”
Why is this spot getting colder while the rest of the world gets hotter?
Scientists have a theory about why the planet is going through a record warm stretch except for this area near Greenland. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
The extreme cooling trends depicted are caused by a collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, a North Atlantic ocean water circulation system that moderates temperatures north of the equator. When the movie was released, however, there had yet to be research examining such an event’s potential aftermath.
Now, a University of Southampton climate study published in Nature Scientific Reports indicates that we were naive to feel safe from “The Day After Tomorrow”-esque realities.
“The basic scenario of the AMOC as a result of global warming is not completely out of the blue or unthinkable,” the study’s author, Sybren Drijfhout, told The Washington Post.
According to the oceanography and climate physics professor, current warming patterns not only indicate that a collapse of the AMOC is possible, but also that resulting consequences would resemble “The Day After Tomorrow,” though not to the same extremes.
Using an advanced climate model at Germany’s Max-Planck Institute to simulate both conditions of global warming and conditions of an AMOC collapse, Drijfhout’s team discovered that, in certain locations, local temperatures could register a drop of up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, while the global mean temperature would drop by 1.5 degrees over a decade — three times stronger than warming trend prior to collapse.
The cold of a “Little Ice Age” would hit Western Europe the hardest, as indicated by this heat map. (Sybren Drijfhout) The cold of a “Little Ice Age” would hit Western Europe the hardest, as indicated by this heat map of 15 years after the start of AMOC collapse. (Sybren Drijfhout)
In a properly functioning circulatory system, the AMOC produces a milder climate downstream of the North Atlantic by bringing warm, salty surface water from the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic to the northern hemisphere.
But this system depends on the connection of surface waters flowing to the north and deeper waters flowing to the south — imagine a “global conveyor belt” — that can occur within just a few sinking ranges in the North Atlantic. These ranges exist only where water on the surface sufficiently nears the freezing point such that it becomes dense and heavy enough to sink to the bottom.
With the Greenland ice sheet melting as a result of climate change, the AMOC’s essential process is slowing
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