Published Tuesday, June 1, 2004 in the San Jose Mercury News

Weather Corner
Jan Null, CCM

Movie's science doesn't hold water

Bad science. Bad movie.

The other evening I ventured out to catch the latest global disaster flick, ``The Day After Tomorrow.'' Indeed, I should have waited until the ``day after tomorrow'' and just skipped it, because I found the movie to be a disaster on many levels.

It follows a long line of special-effects mega-movies like ``Twister,'' ``Storm Chasers: Revenge of the Twister,'' ``The Core,'' and recently on television, ``10.5,'' that distort scientific reality beyond all rationality.

OK, it's only a movie, but it sure would have been nice if they had gotten some of the meteorology halfway right. Processes like global warming and ice ages happen literally with glacial slowness, not in a two-week period. I tried to keep track of factual errors but lost track long before I finished my small popcorn.

The underlying premise of the movie is that global warming causes the ice caps to melt rapidly, disrupting the circulation in the Atlantic Ocean. Somehow this triggers three monster storms, bringing a nearly instant ice age to the Northern Hemisphere.

This scenario is the same one put forth in the sensationalist book by late-night talk show host and conspiracy theorist Art Bell in ``The Coming Global Superstorm.'' It is similarly flawed in that it grabs little bits of unrelated scientific facts, throws them all into a blender and comes out with an outlandish tale.

The movie opens with a scene of scientists on the Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica as a large fissure splits it in a matter of minutes. The actual calving of a large piece of the Larsen Ice Shelf in 2002 took more than a month. But this is really just a minor compression of time. It gets worse.

Somehow, global warming accelerates to a huge climatic shift in the Atlantic within a few days as the oceanic circulation reverses itself. Even if this scientific scenario were valid, we are looking at time scales of hundreds of years, not a week or two. But this pattern changes somehow, allowing a global weather disaster to almost instantaneously break out across the world.

There is snow in New Delhi, and softball-size hail decimating Tokyo. The topper is the outbreak of at least a half-dozen simultaneous mega-tornadoes ripping through Los Angeles. (By the way, Los Angeles County does get tornadoes and has had the most of any county in California, with 53 since 1950.) Oh, and somehow this all happens before the scientists notice three super-storms bearing down on them from the Arctic.

At least they didn't propose sending Bruce Willis in a nuclear-bomb-laden spaceship to blast them out of the sky. Instead, they have Dennis Quaid as the paleoclimatologist ``hero'' of the film, reprogramming a simulation model of global climate into the equivalent of a day-to-day weather forecast model in all of two days.

You get the picture that, scientifically, the film is a disaster. But it might have been saved as a special- effects thriller with some remotely interesting subplot story lines. Alas, this was not to be either. In summary, think of ``The Day After Tomorrow'' as the evil spawn of ``Twister'' and ``Waterworld.''

On a final note, there has been widespread comment that the film is nothing more than a vehicle for proponents of various global warming theories. However, I think the story lines are so bad that the film will not be taken seriously on any scientific level.

Q I have wondered why lightning and thunder always go together. Why is thunder always heard immediately after lightning strikes? Kristin Quince - Santa Rosa

A Lightning causes thunder. A lightning stroke heats the air to more than 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing it to rapidly expand outward in all directions as a shock wave. Think of a sonic boom or simply blowing air into a paper bag and smacking it with your hand to make an ``explosion.''

Unless lightning strikes very nearby, there will be a delay between the time you see the lightning and hear the thunder. This is because light travels at 186,000 miles per second and sound at only 1,100 feet per second. At this rate, it takes sound about one second to travel one-fifth of a mile, while light is seen almost instantaneously. To estimate the distance in miles to a lightning strike, count the number of seconds from the lightning flash and when you hear the thunder, and divide by five.

Jan Null, founder of Golden Gate Weather Services, is a retired lead forecaster with the National Weather Service. Send questions to him c/o Weather Corner, San Jose Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190. You also can telephone questions at (510) 657-2246, fax them to (510) 315-3015 or e-mail them to or fill out a form online at