Dwayne Johnson) this list takes a look at 10 popular disaster movies and delves into what experts have to say:
Dr Victoria Petryshen, environmental scientist and Assistant Professor (Teaching) of Environmental Studies at USC.
Morgan Page, Earthquake expert and Research Geophysicist at the Earthquake Science Center.
Michael Angove, tsunami expert and meteorologist and Tsunami Program Manager at NOAA.
Peter Gleick, climate and water expert and Hydrologist and Climatologist at the Pacific Institute.
10 The Swarm (1978)
After watching the trailer for the first time, Dr Petryshen jokes that “The Swarm is now a movie I must watch immediately.”
Yes, animal migrations happen regularly, and more and more insects are appearing in places they have never been seen before. In Los Angeles, for instance, mosquitoes are now commonplace where they were hardly ever encountered just a few years ago. It seems that these insects are moving north, looking for more favorable climates.
And, of course, swarms of locusts, bees and other insects are not uncommon. But, as Petryshen points out, as much as Hollywood would like you to believe otherwise, they are definitely not “targeting” the human race. The migrations are about their survival, not our downfall.
Still, overall, Petryshen gives this film a “why not?”
9 Twister (1996)
A lot of what you see in this movie is quite realistic. According to Angove, the moviemakers consulted with the National Weather Service and it shows. The technical advice, ideas and suggestions the agency provided clearly did not go to waste. A lot of what is shown in this movie accurately portrays scientists’ attempts at understanding more about these weather systems.
“The one quibble I have with this scene,” Page points out during the cow scene above, “is that when we see the cow the first time it’s turning one way, but when we see it again later, it’s turning the other.” She does, concede, however, that this might be possible had they driven right through the tornado. It looks like the tornado is off to one side, though, in which case the scene doesn’t make much sense as the twister wouldn’t just change direction.
“The cow doesn’t look all that perturbed, tough,” says Angove.
8 Volcano (1997)
“Just to be clear, there is no volcano under Los Angeles,” Page feels compelled to point out after watching this poignant scene. There are many places you will find volcanoes, but Los Angeles is not one of them.
However, as far as she knows, she says, the human interaction with the slow-moving lava is portrayed quite accurately. Yes, your sneakers would start melting and yes concrete barriers and water have been used to stop or divert lava flow in places like Hawaii and Italy. And, yes, unfortunately, you most probably would die if you jumped into lava.
7 The Perfect Storm (2000)
This movie is great for many reasons. First: Clooney. Need we say more. The film also gives the viewer a real sense of just how difficult a sea rescue operation during a storm can be. It very accurately portrays the challenges the sea guard would typically encounter under such conditions. Additionally, the science makes sense. To the scientists, at least.
“What started off kind of like any other hurricane turned into an unusual and very dangerous storm because of the high latitude. Instead of dissipating as it normally would when approaching land, it managed to reinforce the “core” when it encountered these very specific barotropic conditions,” Angove explains. Or tries to. Suffice it to say that the meteorologist and tsunami expert is impressed with the scientific accuracy of the conditions that created “the perfect storm”.
6 The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
The movie is loosely based on the theory of “abrupt climate change.” Basically, as a result of global warming, ocean currents that circulate water around the world shut down, heating up the tropics and cooling the North Atlantic. In the clip above we see a giant tsunami about to hit Manhattan. Which is rather unlikely, according to Dr Petryshen.
A tsunami is usually the result of an earthquake that causes the sea floor to suddenly and dramatically go up and down. “The east coast of the United States is what is known as a passive margin. There is nothing on the sea floor that is going to cause such a massive tsunami. Short of a giant asteroid,” Petryshen quips.
More likely is the steady rise of the sea level, a direct result of melting ice caps due to global warming. This is something New York is in fact very worried about and has led to the proposal of a billion-dollar sea wall to keep out the rising water.
5 Wall-E (2008)
Not your typical disaster movie, Wall-E looks at the post-apocalyptic world left behind after humanity trashed this planet to the extent that they had to take off on a spaceship and send in the robots to clean up after them so life on earth is once again possible.
Although Dr Petryshen chooses to remain hopefully optimistic that we would never actually let things get to this point, she simultaneously points out that when she looks at the current Coronavirus crisis and climate change, her heart sinks just a little.
At the moment we don’t, of course, have the ability or technology to take off on a spaceship and leave the mess to a team of robots. However, some elements depicted in the movie are rather accurate. The space junk, for instance, is very similar to the junk mentioned in a previous list on astronauts reviewing space movies. Even the wind turbines clearly visible in the wasteland where Wall-E works, strike close to home.
There have been several environmental studies, in fact, looking at the long-term effects of the giant non-recyclable fiberglass blades used to create the “environmentally friendly” sources of energy. “We simply don’t have an answer to what to do with these once they are no longer in use,” says Petryshen.
4 2012 (2012)
According to Page, an earthquake occurs when one side of a tectonic plate fault slips and moves, relative to the other side of the plate. This generates seismic waves that cause the shaking and rolling motion we see in the movie. The scale is hugely exaggerated though. “We’re talking centimeters not meters,” Page says.
She also rolls her eyes when she sees John Cusack trying to outrun the seismic waves in his car. Typically, these waves move at a speed of about 5 000 meters per second. No way you can outrun that in a battered old jalopy!
3 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
With constant reminders of global warming in the form of droughts, fires and unprecedented heat waves, it’s not that hard to imagine that we may one day, as depicted in the movie, be in a position where fresh water is the scarcest commodity on earth.
Dr Petryshen, however, points out that it is highly unlikely that climate change would cause the collapse of all of civilization and turn the entire earth into a desert wasteland. In fact, in many parts of the world, climate change is leading to an increase in severe storms and flooding.
To understand the effects of climate change, think about the worst parts of the weather you experience where you live; these are the things that are going to get worse. So, while in many parts of the world this means drought and fire, in other parts storms and flooding are more likely, making the global all-encompassing water scarcity depicted in Mad Max highly improbable. There will still be water in other places on earth.
2 San Andreas (2015)
In this action-packed movie, the San Andreas fault ruptures and causes a bunch of massive earthquakes along the fault line. The only person who can save the day is, of course, The Rock.
How realistic is it though? Would all the buildings in downtown Los Angeles simply crumble should the big one (defined here as a magnitude 8 earthquake along the San Andreas fault) hit?
“Probably not the way you see in the movie,” comments Dr Petryshen. Buildings in L.A. are built on rollers and multiple safety measures to withstand a certain amount of shaking, compensating for the P-wave (up and down) as well as the S-wave (swaying side to side). Naturally, should the shaking be sustained over a long enough period of time, even those measure will ultimately fail. But it’s hard to imagine all the buildings succumbing at the exact same moment.
1 Geostorm (2017)
Much like many other disaster movies, Geostorm builds on the idea of plausible geo-events and takes it to the extreme. In the opening scenes of the film we see clips from real-life events such as tornadoes, flooding and the drying out of reservoirs.
“The worry of course is that we are now modifying the climate to an extent that will make these extreme events even more damaging to civilization,” Gleick explains. The movie then transitions into massive CGI storms and the global response. “The world comes together and produces what we in the business call geoengineering,” Gleick continues.
Geoengineering in the real world refers to the deliberate large-scale manipulation of an environmental process that affects the earth’s climate, in an attempt to counteract the effects of global warming. The building of sea walls and even tree planting campaigns happening now are, one could argue, geo-engineering. We are lightyears away, however, from the massive inter-planetary scale of the geoengineering efforts we see in this movie. Hopefully, we won’t ever need this kind of intervention.