Global Warming: The Movie

The Day After Tomorrow's meteorological mayhem includes floods and, ultimately, a new ice age shown above in the New York Public Library.
Photograph courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

What's being billed as this summer's blockbuster won't scare you with aliens or asteroids but with a threat that's all too real: global warming. A big-time movie studio, Twentieth Century Fox, has teamed up with the makers of the megahit Independence Day on an eco-thriller that packs as much of a message as it does breathless action.

The Day After Tomorrow, which is set to open Memorial Day weekend, begins when a crusading climatologist (played by Dennis Quaid) witnesses a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island break off an Antarctic ice shelf. He tries to warn White House officials that this event will push global warming past a critical tipping point, causing a series of catastrophes. Predictably, the officials pay no heed. (The movie even features a dismissive Vice-President who bears a striking ideological and physical resemblance to the real-life VP.)

Sure enough, within weeks, severe, freakish weather starts battering the world. Tornadoes rip through Los Angeles. A blizzard blasts India. Hailstones as big as bowling balls rain down on Tokyo. As it turns out, melting polar ice caps have dumped too much cold water into the earth's oceans, disrupting the currents that stabilize the planet's climate. The raging storms, in turn, flip a meteorological switch that ushers in an ice age.

"At the core of any disaster movie there always has to be something factual, something real for the audience to grab on to," says Roland Emmerich, the film's director. But even he didn't plan for the movie to track so closely to real-world events. In 2002, just before the crew went into production, a massive piece of Antarctic ice actually did fall into the sea. And deadly hailstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes really did strike around the world. At the time, Emmerich says, "we joked that we had better start shooting soon or we'd be making a documentary."

This being Hollywood, the filmmakers pushed the envelope for dramatic effect. In fact there is an "abrupt climate change" school of thought, whereby scientists believe that persistently higher temperatures in the atmosphere could suddenly trip the earth's climate into colder, harsher weather. "Where the movie is less accurate is the speed at which things occur," says Michael Molitor, a leading climate expert who was a technical adviser to the film. An actual ice age induced by global warming would likely occur over decades, Molitor says, not weeks, as depicted in the film.

Still, with The Day After Tomorrow showing this summer at thousands of theaters worldwide, Molitor and other scientists believe the film may lend some urgency to the debate about climate change. The mere fact that Hollywood is trying to parlay anxiety into profits may be proof enough that the issue has entered the consciousness of mainstream society. "This movie seems to be coming at a time of rising concern about global warming," says Martin Kaplan, a media analyst at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication. "All movies are products of their time. This one plays into our jitters."

—Keith Kloor

They'll Drink to That

Big cities worldwide rely on protected areas to provide residents with clean drinking water. These lands offer a local, if unheralded and less controversial, alternative to piping in water from afar. Protecting land (noted in square miles for several cities, below) costs less than building filtration plants. Like giant sponges, forests soak up water and release it slowly, limiting floods when it rains and storing water when it does not. Watershed protection near cities is thus smart—both economically and ecologically.

—Dan Porras


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Population: 6 million
Protected land: 1,249 square miles
Fourteen protected areas supply 80 percent of the city's drinking water.

Johannesburg, So. Africa 937
Population: 2 million
Protected land:
937 square miles
A significant part of the city's water comes from the Ukhlahlamba-Drakensberg
World Heritage site.

Tokyo, Japan
Population: 8 million
Protected land:
1,013 square miles
A river fed by national parks provides 97 percent of the city's drinking water.

Melbourne, Australia
Population: 4 million
Protected land:
428 square miles
Ninety percent of its water supply is provided by protected mountain watersheds.

New York, New York
Population: 8 million
Protected land:
385 square miles
Catskill State Park protects watersheds that supply 90 percent of the city's drinking water.

Jakarta, Indonesia
9 million
Protected land:
212 square miles
Water that comes from watersheds in national parks is valued at $1.5 billion.

SOURCE: Conservation in Practice, Fall 2003


Separating Church and Park

Creationist river guide Tom Vail doesn't believe that Arizona's Grand Canyon was carved out by the Colorado River over millions of years—the scientific view of nearly all geologists. To make his case that the canyon was instead created by a biblical flood a few thousand years ago, Vail recently teamed up with the Institute for Creation Research to publish Grand Canyon: A Different View, which since last August has been sold at bookstores in the national park. But many geologists are outraged, and one environmental watchdog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), says the creationist text's acceptance by the National Park Service is further evidence that under the Bush administration, America's ecological and recreational crown jewels are turning into "faith-based parks."

Last summer three plaques bearing Christian psalms were removed from the Grand Canyon grounds after the American Civil Liberties Union made an inquiry about them. The park itself had received several letters of complaint, and the superintendent had the plaques taken out. But they were reinstalled a few weeks later on orders from Donald Murphy, deputy director of the National Park Service.

Creationists argue that in the Southwest—and at the Grand Canyon in particular—park guides commonly enliven their tours with bits of American Indian folklore, including the Havasupai Indians' creation myth, which says the Grand Canyon was formed by the receding waters of a great flood. Also, Native Americans attach religious meaning to many of the thousands of terrestrial and aquatic species in the Grand Canyon, including the recently reintroduced California condor, known to many western tribes as the rainmaking thunderbird. But Native American folklore, according to PEER, is in a different league than biblical interpretation. Vail's creationist version of the Grand Canyon is dressed in scientific authority, directly challenging the integrity of the park service, says Chas Offut, the communications director of PEER. "[Native American] myths and folklore add to the wonder of the park without drawing definitive conclusions for the visitor," he adds.

"There is a geologic and a biblical interpretation [of the park]—that's fine," says Christopher Keane, a geologist and spokesperson for the American Geological Institute. But "there are no books for sale in the park written by scientists trying to disprove the existence of God."

—Dan Porras

Eyes in the Skies

With high-tech tracking, environmental officials nabbed a concrete plant for filling an acre of wetland.
Photography by Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

The red pixels caught charles Costello's eye. Last June Costello, chief of wetlands mapping for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), sat at his computer in downtown Boston, comparing older aerial photographs of state wetlands to newer, digitized images. Normally, existing wetlands show up as darkened areas; when the same areas are drained or filled, they appear much lighter. So when Costello's computer spotted such discrepancies, the areas in question popped up on his screen, enclosed within red lines. The before-and-after shots helped the DEP nab two major wetland violators: a concrete plant that had filled in about an acre of wetlands, and a junkyard that had cut down and filled nearly two acres of wooded swamp. The DEP handed out more than $280,000 in fines. "With these more severe violations," Costello says, "you can tell right from the beginning."

For decades environmental agencies have used before-and-after aerial photos to nail wetland scofflaws. But manual comparison is time-consuming, so Massachusetts environmental officers hatched a new plan. In 2001 they took digital images of more than 80 percent of Massachusetts from 6,000 feet up. Older aerial photos and these digital counterparts were scanned into a computer. Today upgraded software is used to compare the two sets, flagging potential violations. All told, about 700 acres of illegal wetland fills have been detected (most of the violations are well under an acre). The remaining 20 percent of Massachusetts should be digitally photographed and examined by April 2005. "Word is getting around very quickly that we have this capability," Costello adds.

In a similar effort, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Photographic Interpretation Center is deploying satellite imagery to track North Carolina hog farms and their huge waste lagoons. Donald Garofalo, the center's director, says these lagoons have failed in the past, sluicing hog manure into streams. With a hog-farm inventory almost complete, Garofalo hopes to begin detecting breaches in these lagoons.

Greg Asner, an ecologist with the Carnegie Institution, is using NASA satellite images of the Amazon basin to track small-time, illegal loggers. "We can see down to about [the size of] the individual large tree," he says. Clear-cutting destroys 5,800 square miles of the Amazon basin annually. But Asner says his satellite investigation finds lesser-known logging operations that gobble up as much as another 5,800 square miles a year. He's turning his findings over to Brazilian authorities, who are still determining what penalties to mete out.

—Brian McCombie

© 2004 National Audubon Society

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Illustrations by Gary Hovland

It's a Gas

If you’re a herring, farting is far from rude. In fact, for these small fish, it may be a way to communicate, says a new report by scientists at the

University of British Columbia. Initial research suggests that because most other fish can’t hear the noise (which sounds like a high-pitched raspberry), the flatulence may be a secret language that helps explain how herring shoals stay together after dark. Zoologist Ben Wilson inadvertently discovered the noise while studying herring hearing. To hear it for yourself, go to

Rebecca Clarren

Odds-On Favorites

This spring, when 18 albatrosses leave their Tasmanian home for a 6,000-mile migration east across the Pacific, the stakes will be higher than usual. Fitted with

transmitters, their progress will be tracked by British online bookmaker, which is sponsoring the Big Bird Race to raise money and awareness about the albatrosses' plight. Sporting lovers can bet on the bird they think will arrive first. Sailors once saw albatrosses as good omens, but now it's the birds that need all the luck: 19 of the world's 21 albatross species are endangered or threatened, mainly because of longline fishing, which deploys a billion hooks in the world's oceans each year, in the process killing about 100,000 albatrosses. What are the odds of the 18 albatrosses surviving? "I'm not a betting man," says Euan Dunn, head of the marine unit for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

—Frank Bures


Green Rockers

After a fruitless search for eco-friendly ways to reproduce his band's CD, activist Craig Minowa started Earthology Records, the world's first environmentally sustainable, nonprofit record company. Earthology, which is based on an organic farm in northern Minnesota, heats and cools its facilities with geothermal energy and taps wind power to run studio equipment and amplifiers. In addition to printing CD liner notes on 100 percent recycled paper with locally made, nontoxic soy ink, the company uses recycled jewel cases and collects the polycarbon scrap from cutting the CDs, which is turned into milk cartons. Minowa's band, Cloud Cult, is a musical embodiment of Earthology's ethics: On tour the band spotlights local issues at shows by inviting environmental nonprofits to set up information booths. Cloud Cult also brings performance art, eco-crafts, and multimedia visuals to different venues. Minowa says the shows are centers of environmental entertainment. "We get a great mix of people coming to see the art and booths who might not otherwise be exposed to environmental issues.

—Dan Porras


Road Trips

Zoologists studying carrier pigeons, the winged wizards of navigation, have discovered that the birds often home in on the nearest highway to get around. Using miniaturized GPS

tracking technology, researchers Tim Guilford and Dora Biro of England's Oxford University super-imposed the flight paths of pigeons onto an ordinance map and found that some birds even circle roundabouts and turn at junctions. "Birds rarely take the most direct route home," says Guilford. Far from belittling the pigeons' legendary powers of navigation, the study shows that homing pigeons use an advanced and integrated system. "Navigation is a two-step process using a map and a compass," says Guilford. Once the birds are familiar with a landscape, its roads, railways, rivers, coastlines, and other linear features serve as elements of a map while the pigeons take bearings from the sun and the earth's magnetic field. To make a trip easier, pigeons can put their homing skills on cruise control and just follow the interstate.

—Dan Porras

Chill Pill

Fish in a north Texas creek could be feeling pretty serene about the urban development happening upstream. Brian Brooks, an aquatic toxicologist at Baylor University, found traces of fluoxetine, the active ingredient in Prozac, in the livers, muscles, and brains of Pecan Creek bluegills. The antidepressant likely traveled from people's medicine cabinets through their bodies and on to a wastewater treatment plant, which, like others, is not designed to filter drugs. In recent years the U.S. Geological Survey has found a slew of pharmaceuticals—
from allergy treatments to heart medications—in more than half the 139 streams tested in 30 states, but the drugs' presence in water supplies remains federally unregulated.

—Jennifer Bogo

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