April 18, 2008— -- Imagine a river of volcanic lava oozing down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, or New York City's Statue of Liberty engulfed by a 300-foot tidal wave.
On the silver screen, nothing matches Mother Nature gone wild. The special effects can blow an audience right out of their seats with images of killer tornadoes, catastrophic hurricanes and violent volcanoes. But is good science a myth in these movies? It's hard to tell when the visual images are so convincing.
Some weather disaster movies have no base in reality, such as the futuristic fantasy "Water World." In that one, global warming causes water to completely cover Earth. Kevin Costner's character grows webbed feet and sports gills behind his ears, supposedly to adapt to an environment without land.
"Cinema makes good science and bad science equally realistic," said David Kirby, author and professor of science communication at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Kirby attended a recent National Science Foundation meeting of scientists and entertainment producers. They concluded that good science, while maybe speeded up or compressed, lends to the credibility and entertainment value of films.
Professors Kevin Furlong and Chuck Ammon use clips from popular weather disaster movies to supplement a course at Penn State University on natural disasters.
"Every clip is another exercise in critical thinking," explained Ammon. "Was that real? Was that fake? Is that realistic? Or is that completely unrealistic?"
The professors said one movie, "Dante's Peak," did look like an actual volcanic eruption. The bomblike explosion spreads ash and sends gases out that obliterate buildings, topple trees and spread destruction for miles.
"That's one of the scenes that probably is the most scientifically accurate," said Furlong. "We know from when Mount St. Helen's erupted, it blew outward and laid all the trees down in one direction."
But as the professors say, the worse the movie, the better the teaching tool. Their course includes plenty of movies with exaggerated weather events: "Twister," "Tidal Wave: No Escape" and "Volcano." Movie audiences expect Hollywood to ramp up the action by twisting fact into fiction. But what happens when Hollywood fiction is used as fact?
Al Gore's "traveling global warming show," the award-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," includes a long flyover shot of majestic Antarctic ice shelves. But this shot was first seen in the 2004 blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow." Sculpted from Styrofoam and later scanned into a computer, the ice shelf "flyover" looks real.
Karen Goulekas, the special effects supervisor for "The Day After Tomorrow" said the shot is a digital image. She was glad Al Gore used it in the documentary since "It is one hell of a shot." Both movies use the shot to convincingly portray global warming, but it is left to the audience to decide if this created image can both entertain and educate us about our changing planet.