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."
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 smartboth economically and ecologically.
de Janeiro, Brazil
So. Africa 937
York, New York
SOURCE: Conservation in Practice, Fall 2003
Creationist river guide Tom Vail doesn't believe that Arizona's Grand Canyon was carved out by the Colorado River over millions of yearsthe 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 Southwestand at the Grand Canyon in particularpark 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."
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.
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.
© 2004 National Audubon Society
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