Scenario That Opens 'The Day After Tomorrow' Actually Not That Far-Fetched, Research Finds

Temperatures could plummet while sea levels spike.

The 2004 blockbuster movie "The Day After Tomorrow" is all about the disastrous effects of the collapse of a massive temperature-driven ocean circulation system. Although the system -- known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation system -- is real, researchers said at the time that the movie wasn't based in facts.

But according to research published last week in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, the effects dreamed up in the movie may actually be more possible than initially thought.

A fictional scene from "The Day After Tomorrow" depicts a surge of water overwhelming Manhattan.

The AMOC helps warm Europe and the East Coast by bringing Caribbean waters northward and shifting cooler waters south. Should the AMOC collapse, especially in light of the broader impacts of global climate change, the report finds that parts of the Earth would actually cool for a period of 15 to 20 years. A lot like it did in the movie.

"The basic scenario of the AMOC as a result of global warming is not completely out of the blue or unthinkable," study author Sybren Drijfhout told The Washington Post, describing a situation wherein temperatures in Europe could drop and sea levels on the East Coast of the U.S. could rise up to 3 feet.

Mid-town Manhattan is pictured from the top of the United Nations building in New York January 26, 2015.
Mid-town Manhattan is pictured from the top of the United Nations building in New York January 26, 2015.

"This would affect hundreds of millions of people," Drijfhout, a professor in physical oceanography and climate physics at the University of Southampton in the U.K., said.

Maximum temperature drops would be around 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of Europe, he said, while northwestern parts of the country would see drops of about 5 to 6 degrees. He likened the temperature shift to the climate of the late medieval "Little Ice Age" in Europe.

Drijfhout estimates the likelihood of "an abrupt collapse" of AMOC, an embellished version of which is seen early on in "The Day After Tomorrow," is probably only around 5 percent -- "which is still serious, given the potential effects," he said.

The rest of the movie, he said, "was exaggerated, [at some points even] violating physical laws." For example, the collapse of the AMOC would not be accompanied by grapefruit-sized hail in Tokyo while multiple tornados devastate Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, according to research published in March, the AMOC has weakened dramatically over the last 1,000 years, as a deluge of cold water from the melting Greenland ice sheet has slowed ocean circulation.

So where do we go from here?

According to Dr. Aixue Hu, a scientist at the Climate and Global Dynamics Lab at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the first step is to put the findings into perspective.

"The scenario [Drijfhout] provided is unlikely to occur in the near future," he said, cautioning it is, however, certainly a possibility in the distant future, with a primary culprit being greenhouse gases. If we want to reduce the likelihood of AMOC collapse, he said, focusing on reducing greenhouse gases is a good place to start.

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