Dec
04
2009

More like “30 Days After Tomorrow,” but still impressive

Another young scientist: Desperately trying to get his research noticed. But it may already be too late.
Another young scientist: Desperately trying to get his research noticed. But it may already be too late.Courtesy Rrrrred
Hey, Buzzketeers. I’m going to be straight with you up front (I always am):

I haven’t actually seen “The Day After Tomorrow,” even though it will feature prominently in this post. I did see the preview, however, and I know the title, so I’m confident that I can sum the film up pretty accurately.

The is how The Day After Tomorrow goes, more or less:

The kid from Spiderman, Peter Parker, is a young scientist trying to make a name for himself in the big city. He has a crippling fear of wolves. Trying to be a famous scientist, however, is a lot like trying to be a Hollywood celebrity: there are a million other kids out there just like you, except that some of them are better looking with bigger muscles, or more feminine ankles, so you have to be willing to act a little crazy, or go on camera naked.

Peter Parker, fortunately, opts for the “act a little crazy” route. He soaks up a couple red bull-vodkas and starts researching. After 7 panicked days and 6 insane nights, Peter says, “Check it out! The Day After Tomorrow, the poop is really going to hit the fan!” But the scientific community was all, “Whatever, Parker. Take that shirt off, and let’s get you on camera.” They were so preoccupied with the thought of Peter’s scientist muscles that they failed to realize that he was right! Like two sick bears squatting on an airboat, the poop was really about to hit the fan.

Sure enough, Peter Parker’s discovery proved to be accurate. The planet’s ocean currents went all haywire, and a couple days later things got really cold and stupid. Peter Parker, despite being shirtless at this point, was more prepared for the situation than everyone else, and he grabbed a sled and went to rescue a friend of his, possibly a beautiful woman or man, who was trapped in an elevator behind some very impressive icicles. Along the way, Peter had to avoid the many wolves that immediately moved into the frozen cities in search of delicious, un-canned human food, but once he rescued his beautiful friend the wolves could no longer be dodged. After a 45-minute-long wolf-fighting scene, Peter emerged bloody and victorious. He had truly conquered this world of the day after tomorrow!

It’s a little silly isn’t it? I mean, everyone knows that ocean currents are vital for spreading heat across the planet, and moderating higher latitude climates. Duh. Surface water is warmed in the tropics, and is pushed into currents by regular wind patterns and the rotation of the Earth. As it reaches colder seas, the water releases heat and moisture into the atmosphere. Colder and saltier now (because the salt in water doesn’t evaporate), the water is denser, and it sinks down to join deeper currents, where it will flow thousands of miles around the planet, before eventually returning to the tropics to be warmed again. Tada. And, of course, shortly after the end of the last ice age, a huge, cold, freshwater glacial lake burst its shores and spilled into the north Atlantic, halting this water cycle and disrupting the Gulf Stream current to plunge the Earth into another thousand years of coldness. But that sort of thing couldn’t happen the day after tomorrow, could it? Noooo. We all know that. It would take years for such a tremendous change in climate to occur. What a silly movie.

Or… maybe not. A new study from the University of Saskatchewan suggests that the story of Peter and the Wolves may not be as far fetched as we all thought. Based on lake core samples, the research seems to indicate that the drastic cooling, at least in Europe, could have occurred over a period as short as just a few weeks, not over the space of years, as was previously accepted.

Lake cores are samples of the deep mud and sediment at the bottoms of lakes, and they’re surprisingly useful for telling what happened above a lake a long time ago. Think about it—if things got really windy, for example, lots of dust and dirt would be blown onto the lake, and it would eventually settle down to the bottom, forming a unique layer. Or if all the plants nearby died suddenly, you’d probably see less pollen in the layer deposited at that time. Scientists can even look at the isotopes of the atoms in lake core layers to learn about what was happening at the time—carbon isotopes can show how much stuff was alive in the lake, and oxygen isotopes can indicate local temperature and rainfall. Examining cores from a very old lake in Ireland, the researchers discovered that the transition to the Younger Dryas period (the sudden return to ice age-like conditions) happened very suddenly, perhaps in as short a time as a month. Peter Parker was right! Peter Parker was right!

As I understand it, though, this rapid and severe change hinges on the North Atlantic Current (the Gulf Stream) being totally shut down very quickly. Cold fresh water released by melting icecaps could very likely affect weather patterns, but something on this scale would require a fairly catastrophic event—some scientists suggest that the Younger Dryas could have been triggered by some sort of extra-terrestrial impact, although the theory is heavily debated.

Still, if some hot young scientist approaches you with some hot young ideas, don’t immediately insist that he take his shirt off—he might be saying something worthwhile

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