Argonne National Laboratory

Science Behind the Fiction: Extreme weather catastrophes

By Kate ThackreyApril 3, 2017

In the past few decades, Hollywood has responded to our own fascination with disaster, pumping out movies in which humans try to survive on an Earth that’s been flooded, dried out, poisoned, frozen, or devastated by flying sharks.

At Argonne, many scientists are studying the effects humans have on the Earth. We asked two researchers at the forefront to take a look at three of the most popular extreme weather disaster movies from the past 30 years, and help separate fact from fiction.

Doug Sisterson is a senior manager for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility. Seth Darling is a researcher at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials and the University of Chicago who studies materials with applications in energy and water.


This epic action flick was not just an opportunity to join in the antics of Mad Max and Imperator Furiosa as they attempt to survive in a violent post-apocalyptic Australia—it was also a haunting picture of how mismanagement of natural resources could change the world we live in.

After mankind has decimated the earth through nuclear war over oil and water, the film’s characters find themselves in a desert wasteland where only the most powerful have access to water and vehicles. This future, according to Darling, might not be so very far from our own.

“There will be water wars,” Darling said. “Many of our sources of water are dwindling due to pollution and other factors, and demand is increasing.”

In “Mad Max,” the characters drive into a massive dust storm, where they witness giant tornadoes and lightning storms. Sisterson said that lightning actually does occur in dust storms—the moving dust particles can create friction, producing enough energy for a lightning bolt.

Sisterson and his colleagues expect extreme weather events to increase in magnitude and frequency over the coming years. These weather patterns will endanger food sources, expand habitats for disease-carrying insects, and force mass migrations of refugees from severely affected countries.

All of these natural disasters could result in the hoarding of resources that we see in the film.

“‘Mad Max’ is symbolic of the types of social issues we may face due to extreme weather events,” Sisterson said.

According to Darling, we need to start thinking about how we react to disaster now, rather than later. “When water resources are limited, it’s true that you can’t give it away for free,” Darling said. “But water is a human right, so at least a base source of water is needed for everyone.”


This 2004 film takes the phrase “the perfect storm” to the next level when melting ice caps change the salinity of the oceans, causing widespread tornados, hurricanes, and flooding to wreak havoc on the Northern Hemisphere before leading into the next major ice age.

Sisterson says that the fears of the movie’s protagonist, paleoclimatologist Jack Hall, are supported to some extent by the scientific community.

One current theory suggests that as polar ice caps melt, more fresh water enters the marine system, decreasing the salinity necessary to keep ocean currents moving. “If this happened, warm water wouldn’t make its way up north, which shuts off the poles from access to warm air,” Sisterson said, “And the water would start to freeze.”

After that, water beneath the surface would slowly freeze over time, creeping from the poles toward the equator, and there would be an increasing number of extreme weather events such as floods and tornados.

The problem with “The Day After Tomorrow” is that its plot spans a timeframe of only a few days. In reality, this would take place over thousands of years.

“The premise is based on things that could happen, but not on the timescale the movie has provided,” Sisterson said.


“Waterworld” provides the opposite setting to the Mad Max series: here the polar ice caps have melted completely, covering the Earth’s surface almost entirely with water. As a result, only a few remaining humans survive on manmade islands and boats.

Sisterson explains that even if the ice caps melted completely, they’d cause a sea level rise of only 220 feet compared to the film’s 25,000 feet. That amount of water would endanger low-lying areas like New Orleans and New York, but wouldn’t touch higher altitudes.

“220 feet doesn’t quite cover the entire Earth in water,” Sisterson said. “But where are you going to displace these ten million people when water floods the subways and Manhattan’s underwater?”

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.