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, anyway....)

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 provided a fascinating look at climate, forest fires, biomass production, and human activity.

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 5C 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 means evaporation, 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.

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 for them.

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 original reference:
"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.

"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."

However, the "attack of the killer frost" special effect was pretty good. Rather unrealistic, sort of like the "butter" on the popcorn.

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.