The movie The Day After Tomorrow is loosely based on the theory of “abrupt climate change.” The plot of the movie is that, 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. The result is a catastrophic storm and a dramatic change in the global climate.
In the movies, abrupt climate change can happen practically overnight. But when scientists talk about abrupt climate change, they mean climate change that occurs over decades, rather than the usual centuries.
While most of The Day After Tomorrow is safely in the realm of science fiction, there is some real science to back up concerns about potentially irreversible changes in our climate within a couple of decades that would affect our communities, health, infrastructure, and ecosystems.
There are a number of potential “tipping points” in the Earth’s climate system – when a threshold could be crossed, resulting in substantial change. The National Research Council report Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises identifies potential abrupt changes in the ocean (which could result in rising sea levels and influence ocean circulation), the atmosphere (which could increase the frequency and intensity of extreme events), at high latitudes (including loss of Arctic sea ice), and ecosystems (species shifts, extinctions, and rapid state changes).
What climate impacts are happening now?
The current pace of global warming, spurred by the human release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, brings an increased risk of more frequent and intense heat waves, higher sea levels, and more severe droughts, wildfires, and downpours.
Global warming will increase the risk of drought in some regions. Also, warmer temperatures can increase water demand and evaporation, stressing water supplies.
Learn about the links between climate change and drought.
As the Earth warms, more areas will be at risk for extreme heat waves.
Learn about the link between climate change and extreme heat.
Tropical storms and hurricanes
A warmer world will help fuel the development of some of the strongest hurricanes.
Learn more about climate change and hurricanes.
Warming has increased Arctic temperatures at about twice the global rate, and Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking much faster than scientists anticipated.
Our Arctic Security report explores how this can set the stage for international disputes.
The number of large wildfires and the length of the wildfire season have been increasing in recent decades.
Find out how climate change will worsen wildfire condition
Heavy downpours and other extreme precipitation are becoming more common and are producing more rain or snow.
Learn more about the link between heavy precipitation and climate change.