Climate scientists who screened The Day After Tomorrow before its release last week say there is no way the earth could be plunged into climatic mayhem in a matter of days or weeks, as the movie depicts. But many scientists, including Princeton’s Michael Oppenheimer, are using the disaster film’s release to underscore what they’ve been saying for decades: The earth’s climate is changing, the consequences are potentially severe, and we had better do something about it right away. Right-wing critics who see the concept of global warming as an anti-business plot are of course assailing the movie as lefty propaganda.
The truth is that New York City, whose destruction by flood and a new ice age in The Day After Tomorrow is only the latest unreal catastrophe inflicted on the city by filmmakers, is one of the most thoroughly studied places in the real world for the possible effects of global warming. That’s partly because of the economic consequences.
Two widely predicted consequences of global warming are rising sea levels and increased storm activity. Put those two together in a “perfect storm” scenario and, according to Klaus Jacob, a senior researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the potential losses in the tristate area could equal $250 billion from one storm—not to mention the deaths. Jacob acknowledges that the probability of this happening is “not very high.” But during the next 100 years, he says, it is “thinkable.”
Jacob is one of the authors of “Climate Change and a Global City,” a study indicating that even today, when sea levels have only started to rise because of global warming, a moderately strong hurricane could cause enough flooding to turn Lower Manhattan into its own island—Canal Street would again become essentially a canal.
Oppenheimer put it another way when he spoke last week at a town hall meeting on global warming sponsored by MoveOn.org. Oppenheimer, who lives in the West Village, said that if global warming were to cause the disintegration of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheet, his descendants “may be the proud owners of beachfront property in the center of Manhattan.” He called the collapse of the ice sheets “a plausible outcome for subsequent centuries,” if greenhouse gas emissions continue at a high rate.
But the city would face more immediate challenges if the emissions continue: More droughts and floods would put additional stress on the drinking-water supply, and more severe and frequent heat waves would raise the number of heat-related illnesses and deaths. Some scientists contend that the North American outbreak of West Nile virus, first detected in Queens in 1999, is related to global warming.
These obviously aren’t like the sudden catastrophes in The Day After Tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean the New York area hasn’t had its share of extreme climatic events. Dorothy Peteet, a senior researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, thinks she has found evidence of a drought in the region that lasted 550 years—and not in the dinosaur era. Peteet bases her idea on her study of core samples from ancient marshes around the region, including the Piermont Marsh, located a few miles north of the city on the west bank of the Hudson River. She thinks it didn’t end until around 1350, when the region was already home to indigenous peoples, and after Vikings are thought to have made their first visit to North America.
“We can’t predict the future,” Peteet says, “but if this has happened before, it can happen again.” She notes that the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are at an all-time high. “We are in uncharted territory,” she says. “There is some resilience in natural systems, but we don’t know how they will react.” What could minimize the risk of such disaster? “Rather than buying parkas to prepare for arctic conditions, buying hybrid cars would be a better reaction,” says Daniel Lashof, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Lashof and others hope The Day After Tomorrow, if not a think piece, will at least hit viewers emotionally. “I was really upset. It was really powerful and disturbing,” said Adam Wolfensohn, a film producer working on a documentary about global warming. “You know, rationally, that the scenarios in The Day After Tomorrow are absurd. It’s a popcorn movie.” But he adds, “On a gut level, it might have an effect—if we’re lucky.”