2016: The [Next] Year without a Summer
Notes on Abrupt Climate change
by Eric Werme
This page is under construction! It may never be finished of course,
but right now it's mostly a god-awful mess of scaffolding, load bearing
walls, and maybe a hanging picture or two. My goal is to get it
presentable by the release of The Day after Tomorrow. Well,
I'll settle for having the scaffolding off.
I saw the movie the day it opened. It fits the formula pretty well -
the really good guys survive but only after facing several life
threatening events. Some of the disposable good guys die. The closest
thing to a bad guy comes around to right-thinking, and the science is
abused mercilessly. The worst science gaffes are the storm surge that
floods New York (I think the winds had to be blowing offshore and the
storm was moving away, anyway) and the claims that the air in the eye
was pulled down from the top of the troposphere so quickly it didn't have
time to warm up so it remains -150°F. (It's really closer to -50°F,
I think the movie would have a better impact on people if they
left the theater into January conditions. Leaving a frozen New
York and 50 foot drifts to head into a snow-free parking lot ruins
the mood, such as it is.
Well before I knew anything about theories behind abrupt climate change,
I wrote my account 1816: The Year without a
Summer. My web research brought me to some new science that
updated a remarkable finding in an ice core sample in Greenland.
Despite its name, Greenland is covered with ice. A lot of ice.
Back in Viking days the climate was warmer than it is now and the
Greenland coast was hospitable enough for some farming colonies.
However, the interior was still cold and still accumulating ice each year.
Between 1989 to 1992 scientists went to the center of Greenland and
extracted an ice core all the way down to bedrock - 3029 meters. The
core chronicles some 200,000 years of climate and other data, and has
fascinating look at climate, forest fires, biomass production, and
A report says
The d18O [the Oxygen isotope ratio of Oxygen-18 to Oxygen-16] records
confirm that large and rapid temperature oscillations have occurred
through most of the last 110,000 year period. They are of a scale that
has not been experienced during the past 10,000 years in which human
society mainly developed.
Especially astonishing are the very short times needed for major
warmings. A temperature increase of 5°C can occur in a few decades.
The Ocean Conveyor
Sailors and oceanographers have mapped many surface currents in the
ocean. About 20 years ago several of these have been linked into a loop around
the world that transports warm water toward the poles and cold water
along the seafloor to the tropics.
Recently oceanographers have put forth a theory that these sudden
changes are due to a disruption in the conveyor system near Greenland
and even more recently ocean data shows that we may be at the start of
the first such disruption in the last 8,000 years.
While everyone has heard about global warming, not many people are
aware of this theory. I started writing this page just before the
release of the summer 2004 disaster movie The Day after Tomorrow. While
it does adapt the abrupt climate change theory, apparently it's more
based on an Art Bell and Whitley Strieber book, The Coming
Superstorm. Nevertheless, the movie should at least get the theory
into mainstream discussion.
The Gulf Stream
The Gulf Stream is part of the conveyor system and transports huge
amounts of heat from the Carribean to the North Atlantic and Europe.
Eventually it becomes the North Atlantic Current and brings warm water
to the Nordic region. The Coming Superstorm, and the movie,
posits that the North Atlantic current drops southward leading to
hotter tropics and colder Arctic. This page concentrates on a newer,
more intriguing theory.
Polar/Northern North Atlantic currents
These smaller currents include the Labrador and East Greenland currents,
and many others.
For our purposes they bring polar water south to the Atlantic basin.
A handful of water
Imagine that your are a handful of water caught up in the Gulf Stream
along with billions of your siblings. As you drift north your warmth
especially as you get into dryer northern air, and you
become saltier, cooler and therefore denser. For millenia when you reach your
cousins brought down from the northern currents, you could flow over
them, bringing your heat to northern Europe. Eventually you cool
enough to sink and
flow back south along the ocean floor, part of a long long trip
called the Ocean Conveyor.
Recently though, the climate has been warming. Increased
precipitation and melting in the north has made your cousins less
salty, and hence lighter even as your increased evaporation has made
you denser. Over the course of several years - just an instant of
geologic time - your younger siblings mix with their cousins and even sink before
reaching Europe. Europe cools some 5°C (9°F) degrees, about
half the temperature decline during the last Ice Age.
Ice Age or "just" Ice Age Conditions
Either phrase elicts images of glaciers covering huge areas. It will
take thousands of years of "Ice Age conditions" before glaciers
rebuild Cape Cod. And note we're not even talking about Ice Age
conditions, only half that much colder and "only" over part of the planet.
Still, we're not talking about the "Little Ice Age" which was only
the reduction of a couple degrees, we're talking more along the line of
the event some 8,200 years ago where a large glacial lake drained and
freshened northern Atlantic waters. While the lake only took a year or
so to drain, it depressed temperatures for some 50 years.
Links to further information
The above is way too sketchy, I'll add to it as time permits. Still,
my major goal with this page is just to sketch out an overview and provide
links to better sites with more detail.
My best resource in writing this page comes from the
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and
in particular their new
Ocean and Climate Change Institute. They recently added their look
at the movie,
http://www.whoi.edu/institutes/occi/currenttopics/abruptclimate_dayafter.html but their other pages have more meat.
This is the page I would have liked to write. It was written for
the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2003. It has Quicktime
animations (disable any pop-up blocking tools you have), graphs of cold
water salinity declines, and a graph of Greenland temperatures since near
the end of the last Ice Age.
This is a good critique of the movie by a meteorologist. He has a fair
amount to say about the Bell & Strieber book and describes several
impossibilities with the movie.
The National Center for Atmospheric Research does a lot of climate
research. Their page gives a little different perspective on things,
and they have a graphic that may be the only one on the subject that
shows the Gulf Stream near the Carolinas.
This news article draws heavily from the above but is useful because it
has comments from other scientists.
This is a transcript from a lecture on the event 8,200 years ago when
glacial Lake Agassiz, in present day Canada, drained through Hudson's
Bay into the Atlantic and disrupted the Gulf Stream.
This weird URL is meant to be accessed from
http://www.atmosphere.mpg.de/enid/p4.html. It's an introduction to the
"North Atlantic Oscillation," a well known weather phenomenon that affects
hurricane formation and weather patterns on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
This is really at http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=17711, but
alternet seems to have saved it for members. The link above goes to a
copy. The article is a good example of when a reporter gets in over his
head and reaches for the adverbs. If you've read the previous links you
won't be as shocked and amazed. (Note that the word "astonishing" appears in a
quote above, but at least it comes from an amazed scientist!)
This reports on researchers looking into periods of warming during Ice Ages
and the possibility they are triggered by El Nino events.
This brief 2001 report predates much of the above. It's useful mainly to
show how much thinking has changed in the last few years.
Epilogue and random thoughts
Move the Gulf Stream south or sink it early?
The movie refers to the freshening of the northern seas forcing the
Gulf Stream south. The OCCI links above refer to it sinking due to
density changes. That sounds more plausible to me, it seems to me there
may be some seafloor sediment cores that will resolve the issue. I'll look
Why does the movie have these -150°F storms, anyway?
I may have to
start listening to Art Bell, but I think the reason may be stories about
Siberian mammoths that froze so quickly they still have fresh grass in
their mouths. Well, I dunno, I haven't seen one myself. Here's
a quote from what may be the
"Before I arrived at the site, Herz had partially dug away the
hill of earth round the body, and so both the forefeet and the
hind feet were exposed. These lay under the body so that it
rested on them. When one looked at the body one had the
impression that it must have suddenly fallen into an unexpected
fissure in the ice, which it probably came across in its
wanderings, and which may have been covered with a layer of
plant-bearing mould. After its fall the unlucky animal must have
tried to get out of its hopeless position, for the right forefoot
was doubled up and the left stretched forward as if it had
struggled to rise. But its strength had apparently not been up to
it, for when we dug it out still farther we found that in its
fall it had not only broken several bones, but had been almost
completely buried by the falls of earth which tumbled in on it,
so that it had suffocated.
However, the "attack of the killer frost" special effect was pretty
good. Rather unrealistic, sort of like the "butter" on the popcorn.
"Its death must have occurred very quickly after its fall, for we
found half-chewed food still in its mouth, between the back teeth
and on its tongue, which was in good preservation. The food
consisted of leaves and grasses, some of the later carrying
seeds. We could tell from these that the mammoth must have come to
its miserable end in the autumn."
At least the movie had a science advisor, maybe
I stayed for the credits and was a bit surprised to see one listed, Michael
Molitor PhD. I think he's after makeup. I can't find much about
him via Google, but he appears to be more a political scientist than
"a geochemist formerly at the University of California's Scripps
Institution of Oceanography." He has worked with the UN on some
environmental reports. I did come across one quote - "Of course it's
fiction. Sure our climate change models are well researched. But we
don't know what we don't know." I've heard of movies where the
science advisor asked to not listed in the credits, I was
thinking this could be one of those! I'll try to find more about him.
Contact Ric Werme or
return to his home page.
Written 2004 May 26.
Last updated 2004 June 13.