Ripping Apart the Science Behind Weather Movies
"Sharks in a tornado. Sharknado. Simply stunning."
There’s nothing better than watching a television show or film try and fail miserably at getting the technicalities behind a profession correct. Many members of my extended family are in the medical profession, and they all tease me for loving House because the science of the medicine is quite frequently wrong. As a meteorologist I understand where they’re coming from, because I do the exact same thing to meteorology movies. That’s why I’ve decided to look into some of the worst of the bunch. The movies themselves aren’t necessarily bad (although they are in some cases—I’m looking at you, Into the Storm!), but the science behind them tends to be absolute garbage. So here we go into the scientific debunking of a few of my favorite bad weather films, in order from most (relatively speaking) to least accurate.
5) Absolute Zero
Let’s just take a second to focus on the title of this movie. Absolute Zero. You know a movie whose title refers to the coldest temperature possible is going to be full of scientific inaccuracies. Ignoring the fact that the movie itself is pretty terrible, the entire premise of the movie—that a magnetic shift in the North and South poles would completely reverse the climate areas around the world—is actually stepping sort of in the right direction. If a magnetic shift of the poles were to occur, yes, we would see some crazy weird weather patterns. But we wouldn’t see a sudden change in the Earth’s climate. Climate is determined by the magnetic poles and the actual geographic poles. Moving the magnetic poles is not going to bring the arctic areas geographically closer to the sun or move the equator farther away. That’s what would really be needed to get a drastic shift in climate. And even if the shift were to occur, it would create two new polar areas across from each other on the globe, instead of wrapping around the entire equator.
Temperature swings themselves aren’t the issue. Places record crazy temperature swings all the time—the record being Spearfish, SD, where the temperature went from -4° F to 58° F in just two minutes! The issue I had with the movie is that it claims the temperature was going to drop to -273° C, or -459.75° F—in other words, absolute zero. Our atmosphere is mostly composed of oxygen and nitrogen. Ever see liquid nitrogen? Then you’ll know that it changes states well before absolute zero—at around -196° C (-320° F), in fact. It actually will turn into a solid around -210° C (-346° F). Even oxygen’s boiling point and melting point are -183° C (-297° F) and -222° C (-368° F), respectively. If the temperature were to really hit absolute zero, the entire atmosphere would have solidified around these people—and a tiny little metal box inside of a building is not going to protect them.
4) The Day After Tomorrow
This is another movie where the premise itself is actually attempting to head in the right direction (and the movie itself is about a million times better than Absolute Zero). I do find it entertaining that the two movies where they are at least somewhat on the right track are both about climate. It’s a somewhat popular theory that global warming will cause the climate to change slowly enough that humans would be able to adapt—but that’s not necessarily the way things work. It’s actually very plausible that we hit a certain point climatologically where fast climate change would occur. Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground does an excellent job explaining how melting ice caps could stop the Gulf Stream, causing North America and Europe to cool dramatically à la “the year without a summer.”
But you’re here for the inaccuracies! So let’s get to those. Flash freezing isn’t exactly a crazy concept—but it requires certain temperatures. The superstorm that is overtaking the planet in The Day After Tomorrow is said to be dropping cold air from high in the atmosphere to cause the flash freezing. But physics dictates that air expands and warms as it descends. And speed’s got nothing to do with it, as they claim in the movie. No matter how fast the air is moving, it is still going to expand and warm as it falls, rendering the temperatures needed for flash freezing impossible. Another aspect of trying and not quite getting it right is the merging storms. While it’s not uncommon for storms to merge (see Superstorm Sandy for a large-scale example), they aren’t going to have an eye unless they are a hurricane. Hurricanes only form over the ocean and, while an eye can make landfall, the storm will dissipate quickly after that occurs since the storm no longer has access to the heat from the warm ocean waters.
What list of meteorology movies would be complete without Twister? In and of itself it’s actually a really interesting movie. It has great actors and a good plot, and all told it’s pretty fun. For crying out loud, the bad guy is an “evil” meteorologist in it for the money (which is actually becoming a legitimate threat in the storm chasing community)! But when it comes to the science within the movie, it has some wild inaccuracies. I always remember Dusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) spewing some nonsense about how the “N.S.S.L. is predicting an F5!” For one, the N.S.S.L. (National Severe Storms Laboratory) doesn’t really have anything to do with actually forecasting the weather. Their website states, “At NSSL, our basic and applied research focuses on understanding severe weather processes, developing weather observation technology, and improving forecasting tools.” Nowhere in there does it say that they have anything to do with making forecasts. I think the people Dusty was looking for would be the Storm Prediction Center (SPC). It’s their job to put out severe weather watches and keep an eye specifically on weather threats around the nation. While the local National Weather Service (NWS) offices are the ones who actually put out the warnings on storms, it’s the SPC’s job to give the NWS offices a heads up on where that nasty weather is most likely going to occur. But that’s only covering the concept of forecasting the weather.
What about the actual tornadoes that occur in the movie? If you pay close attention, the twisters frequently throw debris away from the tornado. While outflow is not uncommon in storms like that, if it’s occurring on the scale that it does in the movie, that tornado is not going to last long. Another wind issue is when they’re driving and large debris is flying all around them. If the tornadic winds are strong enough to be moving a house or a semi, then it’s definitely going to be throwing around their vehicle. They also have the tornados appearing out of simple stratus clouds. The least they could have done would be to have the tornado coming out of some type of wall cloud. They do show some actual storm footage a few times, and you can clearly tell that the storms the real tornadoes are forming from are nothing like the simulated storms that were CGI-ed into the movie. You get the picture. I could go on for days.
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