The movie, The Day After Tomorrow, produced by Roland Emmerich, and the book, The Sixth Winter, written by Douglas Orgill and John Gribben, both deal with sudden climate change – the sudden onset of an ice age. They are both appropriate for review in an era that could prove apocalyptic, an era that may see sudden changes in the way our planet operates in quite a number of ways, including dramatic climate changes.
The Sixth Winter was written in the late 1970s and reflects the era it was written in. The protagonist, a climatologist named Stovin, uses a portable electric typewriter to do his reports and brings his work to a Cray One super-computer, Razzle Dazzle, the only one of its kind available for meteorological work. He winds up in the Soviet Union where an “outrider of the future”, an isolated tornado of ice where the jet stream takes a dip from the stratosphere to the surface of the planet, brings the cold temperatures of space and death and disaster to the city of Novosibirsk in Siberia. He had been requested by name by Soviet authorities, and he had brought with him a wolf zoologist who is his romantic interest, Diane Hilder, and a half Eskimo from Alaska, a former USAF pilot named Bisby.
He stays at the home of a young Russian climatologist named Soldatov and his wife, Valentina. They are ultimately joined by a Soviet Foreign Ministry employee, also a KGB agent, named Volkov, whose main job is to keep an eye on the Americans, particularly Bisby, who as a former air force pilot is considered a threat. It turns out that they have to make a dangerous journey across snow and ice to America as the snows and winds of the new ice age tear apart the infrastructure of the northern hemisphere. They also tear apart the social structure of eastern Siberia where Chukchi tribesmen decide to leave and go east towards Alaska, deserting towns, cities and cooperatives, killing ethnic Russians and kidnapping their women.
In this dangerous situation, the particular skills of a man trained to be a high altitude Eskimo, Bisby, shine forth as he brings the group to safety a few miles from the island where he was raised and warned by an Eskimo shaman to not return to.
The book deals with issues other than these. A book like this can afford to. One of the issues it deals with is the possibility of a racial memory in creatures that allows them to adjust to situations instinctively. The creature that is highlighted is the wolf – which in the ice age prior to the present inter-glacial period, had roamed in packs of one hundred or more in efforts to hunt mammoth and other large creatures. As the book begins, wolves follow the manitou host, a huge herd of Canadian antelope, south as they seek a warmer climate in advance of the cold they sense is coming. The Canadian white man stationed to keep an eye on the area cannot believe what his Canadian Eskimo assistant tells him – that the manitou are moving south. The Eskimo tells him that the wolf is signaling the movement – and the wolf is not wrong.
During the first third of the book, Stovin sees a dead child being slowly cut out of ice near Novosibirsk.
People like me, who often write on issues from an apocalyptic viewpoint, need to keep the following sentences in mind when writing. Indeed, anyone who makes predictions needs to.
An unaccustomed feeling was stealing over him [Stovin]. Mentally, he examined it and found to his surprise that it was shame. The theories of climatic change that he had argued were one thing. That small dead face was another. He knew now, bitterly, that in the past few weeks he had even felt a grim satisfaction that at last he, the controversial Stovin, was being proved right; that eminent contemporaries who had doubted him must now listen attentively to all he had to say. But there was no satisfaction here at Novosibirsk, where a small boy he would never know had reminded him that there was more to being a man than pride in the power of the mind.
The movie The Day After Tomorrow, made a quarter century after The Sixth Winter was published, also reflects the era it was made in, the early 21st century; cell phones and computers abound. Data is transmitted instantly from a British oceanographic tracking station in northern England to the United States by e-mail. In this story, the concept of global warming is used to provide the apparent paradox of an oncoming ice age, and the protagonist, a Professor Jack Hall a paleo-climatologist, a person who studies ancient weather patterns, is first seen at a conference in New Delhi where this is being discussed, and where it is snowing. He leaves the conference with a Professor Rapson, an English oceanographer who is an expert on ocean currents. In this story, just as in The Sixth Winter, the climate in New Delhi is remarkably cold and snowy.
The concept put forth in the movie is that the melting of the polar ice caps creates a serious change in the salinity of the water, one which shuts down the Gulf Stream which warms the climate in the northern hemisphere. There is an issue of getting time to work on a super-computer to work out the permutations of a climatic model. In the book, this is not a major issue; the protagonist gets the sympathetic ear of the American president right away, so computer time is forthcoming. But in The Day After Tomorrow, nobody in the administration wants to believe or listen to the paleo-climatologist warning of an impending ice age coming on the heels of huge storms that develop over the Earth’s northern hemisphere. The paleo-climatologist and his team of assistants have to work 24/7 to figure out the crisis they are facing once they finally do get time on a main-frame.
In the movie, the opening events are less dramatic than in the book reviewed above. The temperatures at monitoring buoys in the North Atlantic take dramatic plunges, one after another as the polar ice cap in the north slowly falls apart, making Jack Hall’s model of weather the only relevant one. But the action moves fast as storms having the nature of hurricanes of ice and cold develop over the land masses of Eurasia and North America and start to move south bringing massive flooding to the coastlines, and a killing cold to the population centers of Europe and North America. The mechanism for bringing this killing cold is much the same in the movie as in the book: the jet stream takes a vertical drop to the surface of the planet, bringing the freezing temperatures from the troposphere, temperatures that are as cold as -65C (-150F) to the surface of the planet. In the movie, the storms, like hurricanes, have an eye, and it is in this eye that the jet stream brings the temperatures of the troposphere to the planet’s surface. There is no wind at all, everything is iced over, nothing can move, and in anyplace that does not have a heat source, all living things freeze to death instantly.
In a phone call to Professor Rapson in northern England, Professor Hall explains that the three storm cells descending southwards from the North Pole will combine into one huge storm cell, and when the storm is over, and the air is rebalanced, the planet will be in the grip of a new ice age. He tells the English professor to get out of his station; the Englishman replies that the time is long past for him to evacuate his post. He suggests to the American, Professor Hall that he save those whom he can. Then the line goes dead.
The drama, the story line in the movie, is the conflict between the father climatologist and his estranged but brilliant son, Sam, who leaves Washington to go to New York to participate in a “college bowl” type contest between elite schools. Sam goes to be with the girl he has a crush on, Laura. As the storms begin to ravage New York City and cut it off from the world, Sam, Laura, the school’s chief nerd and the leading member of another team find themselves in New York’s world famous Public Library, on East 41st Street and Fifth Avenue, the one with the lions at the entrance. Sam makes a phone call to his parents from a public phone in the flooded mezzanine, and the father warns the son to stay inside, and to insure that he has a heat source. He explains to him about the eye of the oncoming storm and its fatal nature. He also promises to come to New York and get Sam.
So we see the father’s journey into danger from Washington to New York to rescue his son, the journey which parallels the journey of Professor Stovin and crew in The Sixth Winter through northern Siberia to America. Though costly, the journey is successful. Father and son are re-united, tied together with mutual bonds of new respect.
The point of tying the movie and the book together is that, though worked on a quarter century apart, they both look at the same issue – sudden climate change. It must be made clear that sudden climate change is an entirely different issue from climate change generally. The Earth has grown warmer and colder over varying times in the past several billion years or so, and will continue to vary in its climate from time to time. There was once a time when grapes were grown in northern England and Greenland was indeed green. And there have been times when men have roasted oxen on the Thames or skated on the Hudson River. Indeed, there was once a time when the parched nation of Israel was lush with vegetation and it took two men to heft a bunch of grapes grown there. Who knows? It may be that I and mine will again see a time when it takes two men to heft a bunch of grapes grown in this country. That is something worth praying for.
But the issue of sudden climate change is the issue of how men and women cope with sudden changes in their lives that go beyond the standard loss of family, friends, job, home and other dislocations that usually strike a human being. Here, the book The Sixth Winter stands head and shoulders above the movie The Day After Tomorrow. Douglas Orgill and John Gribben provide what Roland Emmerich does not – a vision for coping with a radically changed world – the vision of Homo sapiens hibernus – Winter Man. The movie implies that if we get our act together, we can prevent an oncoming ice age. I do not believe that men can prevent an oncoming ice age if it is meant to come upon us, even though we do, by our sins of commission and omission, influence the weather a great deal. We simply do not know enough about the world we live in to arrogantly think that our actions will bring on a sudden ice age, or sudden runaway global warming, the current fad.
We would do well to realize that we have not been good stewards of the planet entrusted us with, seek to do better, hope for the best, and trim our sails to however the wind blows. Realizing with a certain humility that it is not us who cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.