Ice age movie is realistic, says Britain's chief scientist

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The Independent Online

The Hollywood blockbuster that depicts a sudden ice age brought about by climate change is "remarkably realistic" in parts, says the Government's chief scientist.

The Hollywood blockbuster that depicts a sudden ice age brought about by climate change is "remarkably realistic" in parts, says the Government's chief scientist.

Sir David King said The Day After Tomorrow, which he watched yesterday at a private screening in London, will increase the public's awareness of a threat he once described as worse than terrorism. But he added that it plays fast and loose with some of the science of climate change. "I welcome the movie in the sense that it raises the profile of a critically important public debate about global warming and the need to persuade governments to take action now," Sir David said.

The catastrophic climatic events of the film's storyline are triggered by the Gulf Stream - the warm current that flows into the North Atlantic - coming to a sudden halt. This brings a dramatic and instant ice age to North America and Europe.

Sir David said the film, by the Independence Day director, Roland Emmerich, accurately portrayed the difficult real-life discussions that have taken place between climate scientists and politicians, particularly those close to the Bush administration, which is sceptical about global warming.

"The general interaction between the scientific community and political community is interestingly well portrayed," he said. "The opening scenes setting up the key scientific factors and introducing the viewer to the scientists and the scientific-political interface are in my view remarkably realistic. I think palaeoclimatologists can closely identify with the discussion. The sceptical reactions that the scientists received are also rather well depicted."

Climate scientists know that a warmer planet could slow down the Gulf Stream, but none of the computer models predicts its complete halt, and all suggest that climate change will result in a warmer rather than colder world, Sir David said.

"The current consensus is that climate change may result in a weakening of the Gulf Stream but not a complete halt," he said. "The cooling caused by a weakened Gulf Stream would not actually counteract the general warming caused by increased greenhouse gases. Northern Europe is more likely to get warmer than colder."

Some critics of the film have suggested that its exaggerated storyline - showing tornadoes ripping through Los Angeles and snowstorms lashing Delhi - could dangerously mislead the public and cause them to become compacent about the real but not so dramatic dangers of climate change. "Will the public become inured? I think we're quite a long way from that. We're still in a situation where we need to engage the public more fully in the global warming debate," Sir David said.

"I think we're beginning to do that quite successfully in the UK but if we look globally there is a big job yet to be done so I do therefore welcome this movie despite the problems," he said.

Geoff Jenkins, a senior climate researcher at the Met Office's Hadley Centre, said the Gulf Stream was switched off completely about 11,000 years ago when freshwater from melting ice sheets flooded into the Atlantic. "Those ice sheets don't exist in Canada any more and so that same sort of thing could not happen again," he said. "Nobody thinks the world is going to cool in terms of precipitating a new ice age and the sort of thing that's in the movie. At the very worst we will see the world warming apart from a bit of the North Atlantic."

Sir David accepted the film's limitations: "The film does unrealistically concertina into a few weeks a scenario that if it did occur would take decades or even a century." But he added: "It's important that we all take cognisance of what scientists are saying about global warming and by that I mean all political players around the world and this clearly must include the American administration."

CLIMATE OF FEAR OR FICTION?

"The movie exaggerates how quickly climate change can happen. And higher carbon dioxide will not push us into another ice age." Daniel Shrag, Harvard University oceanographer

"People already have concerns about risks posed by climate change. The film is likely to reinforce these concerns while providing a real opportunity to stimulate a serious public debate."

Professor Nick Pidgeon, environmental risk analyst, University of East Anglia

"The... scenario the film portrays is scientifically ludicrous - not only in the speed of response but also by linking sea-level rise to extreme cold."

Professor Phil Jones, climatologist at the Climate Research Unit

"The The Day After Tomorrow takes its starting point from science, but ends up telling a dramatic and entertaining science-fiction story."

Professor Mike Hulme, scientist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change

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