When The Coming Global Superstorm was first published in 2000, co-authors Art Bell and Whitley Strieber were ridiculed by climatologists and sceptics alike for talking arrant nonsense — which makes New Scientist magazine’s cautious reappraisal of their theory all the more significant
This book was the inspiration behind the 2004 blockbuster movie The Day After Tomorrow. Directed by Roland Emmerich, it was a box-office success, much to the annoyance of the climatological community, who complained that it was based on pseudo science — a phrase used to describe theories they don’t like from people they distrust, which is usually anyone outside their own ranks. The two authors behind this book, who had no formal qualifications as climate experts, were easy targets.
Look at their past track records (as the scientific community would describe them): Art Bell — a paranormalist talk show radio host (now semi-retired), and Whitley Strieber, an author obsessed with aliens and UFOs. Cranks, obviously. And in it for the money, no doubt — after all, just look how successful the film’s been.
Bell and Strieber say that the processes culminating in a superstorm will be triggered in part by a dramatic weakening, or even cessation, of the Gulf Stream, the oceanic current that conveys warm water from the equatorial regions of the Atlantic to the cooler regions of the northern hemisphere. The weakening would be caused by a massively accelerated melt of the northern ice sheets owing to sharply rising temperatures, exacerbated by unusually warm air flowing across the north polar region. The atmosphere above the arctic could become very unstable and if a certain tipping-point is reached, fierce supercell storms could suddenly form, bringing extremely difficult conditions to Europe and North America. The gravest scenario has the supercells merging into one huge, devastating superstorm that might last for weeks until the pent-up atmospheric energy is dissipated and equilibrium is restored. Such a storm could dump billions of tons of snow upon much of the northern hemisphere with devastating climatic consequences that might have to be endured for hundreds of years. (Other theories are available — see Climate Change: Competing Theories and Climate Change: Sunspots? Or Us?)
Rubbish, said the climatologists. It’s all based on bad science — pseudo science. Especially the atmospheric stuff. Nothing like this could happen in a few weeks, or even a few decades. These events would take much longer to play out, even if the science was good. The ice cap won’t even start to seriously melt for another hundred years at least.
The sceptics got in on the act too. As a typical example, take this vitriolic piece — a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) review of the movie published online in May 2004, just before the film’s worldwide release. A few quotes will serve to highlight what I mean:
The Day After Tomorrow presents climate change cataclysms that no respected scientist considers realistic … the science depicted in the film is generally agreed, by all knowledgeable commentators, to be pretty much loony … the origins of the film’s plot apparently involves a sudden collapse of the Gulf Stream that unleashes a devastating new Ice Age. The conceit seems based on a book by UFO enthusiasts Whitley Strieber and Art Bell entitled The Coming Global Superstorm … “ Insulting Bell and Strieber by describing them as bozos, the article adds that climatologists have stated clearly that the scenarios depicted in the film are absurd.
What a difference a few years can make.
Catastrophic arctic meltdown has become a recognized phenomenon and the Gulf Stream is faltering; the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is screaming about the clear and present peril we all face. And now the prestigious scientific journal New Scientist has given Bell and Strieber’s superstorm theory a cautious re-evaluation.
On 6th December 2007, in an item called Ancient Flood Brought Gulf Stream To A Halt, the journal reported on research describing an event that was the biggest climate event of the last 10,000 years and which caused the most dramatic change in the weather since humans began farming.
It was just over 8,000 years ago when Lake Agassiz, a huge glacial lake in Canada, burst its banks and dumped an estimated 100,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water into the North Atlantic. Researchers are now certain that this catastrophic event shut down the Gulf Stream and cooled parts of the northern hemisphere by several degrees for more than a hundred years.
The findings, say the scientists, show that modelling studies are correct in suggesting that something similar could happen with equal abruptness as the planet warms under human influence.
The report adds that the film The Day After Tomorrow, which portrays such a scenario, may have exaggerated — but not by much.
Climate historians have long known about the sudden collapse of Lake Agassiz, which they’ve established emptied down the Hudson Strait and into the Labrador Sea west of Greenland, very close to a key point in the global ocean circulation system where Atlantic water brought north on the Gulf Stream freezes, and dense, saline, leftover water plunges to the ocean floor.
Investigators now think that the huge volume of water from the draining lake refreshed the ocean water so much that this plunging ceased, shutting down the circulation, including the Gulf Stream, which keeps countries around the North Atlantic warm. That would explain why Greenland ice cores show temperatures in the area plummeting by up to 8°C.
Helga Kleiven and colleagues at the University of Bergen, Norway have found proof that this is exactly what happened. They carried out a detailed study of sediments on the floor of the Labrador Sea and found clear signs of major changes exactly when the lake emptied and the temperatures dropped.
The research also shows that the changes were abrupt, happening within a decade or so, in warm climate conditions not unlike those of today.
Bell and Strieber may not hold professional climatological qualifications. But despite their unusual backgrounds — in fact, because of their unusual backgrounds — they’re certainly not bozos and they don’t deserve to be insulted in such a derogatory fashion. Using what they’ve learnt over the years, they carefully researched the subject and filtered their findings through the prism of this experience, applying an attribute they each hold in spades to make sense of what they uncovered: they used their imaginations to put together the pieces of a complex jigsaw and came up with a striking theory, aspects of which are being verified with each passing year. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Einstein. Events are demonstrating how true that is.
I’ve no doubt Art and Whitley are familiar with another axiom, from Schopenhauer, who observed that all truth passes through three stages: first, it’s ridiculed; second, it’s violently opposed; and third, it’s accepted as self-evident. Well, it’s good that we seem to have cleared the first two stages with this theory and, if the New Scientist item is any indication, we’re moving into the third. Good job too. There’s no time to spare.
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