U.S. Water News Online
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- "It's a movie. It's Hollywood
entertainment, not science," said Kansas State Climatologist Mary
Knapp, assessing newly released "The Day After Tomorrow."
Some of those involved in making the movie are now being quoted as
saying much the same.
But, the movie makers already had filled a website with doomsday
"facts," backed by ominous music and well-edited photos. They'd
advised others to follow their lead in planting trees, to help
prevent global warming and thus a natural Armageddon.
Even before the movie opened, internet users from around the world
were using the site as further proof that the end of the world is at
hand ... or, that humankind needs to prepare as many did in the
Fifties, anticipating nuclear war.
"People need to remember movie makers have to simplify things that
are very complex. They focus on drama and ticket sales, more than
accuracy. In this case, the real premise of the movie is a climate
change. And global warming is just one of the factors that can affect
climate," said Knapp, who heads the Kansas Weather Data Library,
based with Kansas State University Research and Extension.
In fact, fitting most climate changes into a movie format would be
like trying to capture the Moon with a butterfly net.
"In most cases, climate change is slow," Knapp said. "For example,
humans have been releasing an increasing volume of witches' brew into
the atmosphere for years just as they've been polluting the water.
They've also been changing the face of Earth, and that has a big
impact on the atmosphere."
"Of course, this is a concern. It's called fouling your own nest,"
the climatologist said. "But I have to admit my personal belief is
that land-use change `not just deforestation` might be the biggest
concern. The conversion of agricultural and other open lands to urban
use has an impact on the atmosphere that most people don't seem to
What the "fouling" will do to the overall climate, however, is
"Yes, we're seeing changes in the greenhouse effect in how
our atmosphere handles the energy exchange between Earth and the Sun.
But what we're measuring today is the result of emissions we let
loose between and during World Wars I and II," Knapp said. "Fossil
fuel use accelerated at a tremendous rate after that. Those effects
are still to come, as the gases work their way through the
atmosphere. Cloud interactions and land-use change. "
Science can't predict the results, she said. It's still trying to
find out how climate works.
Satellite weather records, for example, extend back only about 15
years. Scientific ground-level measures don't exist for some parts of
the world and are, at best, about 100 years old. Ocean floor, polar
ice measurements and other paleoclimatological records are difficult
How various factors affect each other remains a puzzle, Knapp
And, odds are, some factors or relationships have yet to be
"We're still having technology problems, such as 'ground clutter,'
but satellite readings have shown us that Earth's surface
temperatures aren't distributed evenly. The rising temperatures we've
been hearing about lately are only showing up on ground-level
measures, not the satellites. And, the ground measures indicate those
changes aren't evenly distributed, either. We don't know why any of
that's so,'" she said. "It's no wonder that predicting our climate's
future now is still a puzzle."
Lack of scientific knowledge is no excuse, however, for ignoring
the potential in "fouling" the Earth and its atmosphere, Knapp said.
"We should be taking it at least as seriously as we do our
economics and our politics," she said. "An ostrich is powerless only
when it sticks its head in the sand. And climate is just too big and
too important to safely ignore, no matter if we're talking about our
welfare or that of our grandchildren."
To be fair, Knapp admitted that Earth's climate actually can
change somewhat quickly, as "The Day After Tomorrow" implied.
"All it would take is a really big asteroid and a direct hit," she
said. "There's some evidence to suggest that's what caused the ice
age that ended the rule of the dinosaurs.
"The ash from a large-scale volcanic eruption can temporarily
change climate, too, by circling on the earth's wind currents and
reflecting back the sun's light. That was part of the reason we had
so much flooding in 1993 along with a strong El Niño
weather system that started in the Pacific Ocean."
Volcanic ash once caused what New Englanders and the British still
call "The Year Without a Summer." In April 1815, Tambora a volcano in
Indonesia produced the most devastating eruption in recorded
history. In about a week, it spewed out more than 150 times the ash
of the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in the United States. Today's
estimates put its ejected debris at 1.7 million tons.
Given the population of the time, the results were almost as
dramatic as those pictured in "The Day After Tomorrow," Knapp added.
The Tambora eruption directly killed about 10,000 people. But, it
also caused abnormally low temperatures from late spring to early
autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. This caused widespread crop
failures. So, the eruption indirectly killed an estimated 82,000
additional people through starvation and disease.
"Volcanology has progressed to the point that we could save many
of the 10,000 today. We'd know the eruption was coming and how strong
it was likely to be," the climatologist said. "Now we need to work on
learning an equal amount about our climate, while each one of us does
what we can to preserve or even improve our environment. That's just
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