Here's What Science Has to Say About Roland Emmerich's Disaster Movies

The end of the world is complicated.
Marcia Wendorf
Apocalyptic scene.mppriv/iStock

Word of mouth is already building for director and screenwriter Roland Emmerich's latest disaster movie, Moonfall. Scheduled for release in February 2022, it tells the story of what would happen if the Moon were to spiral into the Earth.

Moonfall is far from being Emmerich's only disaster flick, he is also responsible for such classics of the genre as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. What makes Emmerich's films so compelling is that they contain just enough real science to make us believe that the scenarios played out in the films could actually happen.

Aliens and extreme weather

On April 27, 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense formally released three videos taken by Navy personnel of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs), also known as UFOs, that were engaging with Navy fighter jets flying off of two of America's coasts. The videos are available for viewing.

In 2019, New York Times writers, including Leslie Kean, began a series of stories about the military's encounters with UAPs, and on June 25, 2021, the Pentagon finally released its long anticipated report about UAPs, concluding that many sightings cannot be easily dismissed.

At the same time, extreme weather events are becoming more and more common. In early 2021, Storm Filomena dumped the heaviest snow in over 50 years on Spain, and temperatures plummeted. In February 2021, as we reported, 3.5 million homes and businesses in Texas were left without power when temperatures dropped to -13 ° F (-25 ° C) in some areas. By July 2021, the final death toll in Texas was set at 210.

On November 7, 2021, Dr. Kyle Merritt, head of an emergency department in British Columbia, wrote in a chart that the cause of one of his patient's symptoms was "climate change." Merritt went on to say, "If we're not looking at the underlying cause, and we're just treating the symptoms, we're just gonna keep falling further and further behind." Forty fellow doctors and nurses at the same hospital formed Doctors and Nurses for Planetary Health, which is calling on the Canadian government to declare an "ecological emergency".

Perhaps the events in some of Emmerich's films are not so far-fetched after all. We're going to take a look at four of Roland Emmerich's best-known disaster films, and the real science behind them.

1. Moonfall - 2022

Moonfall. Source: Impawards/Wikimedia Commons

According to its distributor Lionsgate, the plot of Moonfall is described as: "A mysterious force knocks the Moon from its orbit around Earth and sends it hurtling on a collision course with life as we know it. With mere weeks before impact and the world on the brink of annihilation, NASA executive and former astronaut Jo Fowler (Halle Berry) is convinced she has the key to saving us all – but only one astronaut from her past, Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson), and conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley) believe her. These unlikely heroes will mount an impossible last-ditch mission into space, leaving behind everyone they love ..."

The science behind the film: The Moon orbits Earth at an average distance of 238,900 miles (384,400 km). As Solar System moons go, the Moon is quite large, coming in at the fifth largest satellite overall. At around 2.159 miles (3,475 km) in diameter, the Moon is around 1/4th the diameter of Earth.

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The Moon orbits around Earth once every 27.3 days, and the Moon is tidally locked to Earth, meaning that it rotates only once during each revolution around Earth. This means that the same side of the Moon always faces Earth, and the other side remains forever out of view.

The magnitude of the gravitational force pulling the Earth and Moon toward one another is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the centers of the two bodies. This gravitational force is balanced by the momentum of the Moon's revolution. If the Moon's motion were somehow to be stopped, it would fall into the Earth just like dropping a rock in a pond, and that would be a bad, bad thing.

The Moon is responsible for tides on Earth, which are a combination of the Moon's gravitational force, the Earth's gravitational force, and centrifugal forces generated by the revolutions of the Earth and Moon (and Earth and Sun) around their common center-of-gravity. These forces result in water bulging on the side of Earth that is closest to the Moon and also on the opposite side of the planet.

Were the Moon to actually fall towards the Earth, besides the oceans being affected, these same tidal forces would act on structures, buildings, and even mountains, possibly wiping out all life on Earth even before the impact finished the job.

2. 2012 - 2009

2012. Source: Impawards/Wikimedia Commons

Co-written and directed by Roland Emmerich, the film stars John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, Thandiwe Newton, Danny Glover, and Woody Harrelson. The idea came from the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, which, some say, predicted the end of the world in 2012.

In the film, when exotic neutrinos start warming up Earth's core, causing the tectonic plates to shift, governments begin construction of enormous arks in the Himalayas. Places on the arks are sold to the super rich.

Soon, and somewhat satisfyingly, Los Angeles is destroyed, followed by Las Vegas, before a group of survivors finally makes it onto one of the arks. A year, a month, and 27 days later, the waters finally recede and the survivors emerge to repopulate the Earth.

The science behind the film: no less a personage than underwater archaeologist and professor of oceanography Robert Ballard thinks that a great flood, which may have influenced the flood described in the Bible, occurred around the Black Sea area. Ballard, who is known for finding the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, and the discovery of life around volcanic vents two miles below the ocean surface, has a theory that sometime around 9,500 years ago, the melting of ice caps caused sea level rises and both fresh water and seawater floods.

Two Columbia University scientists have proposed a controversial theory that the salty Black Sea was once a freshwater lake before being hit by an enormous wall of water coming from the Mediterranean Sea. In 2012, Ballard decided to investigate. Examining the coastline off of Turkey, 400 feet (122 m) below the surface, Ballard's team discovered an ancient shoreline. Carbon dating of shells showed that an enormous flood occurred around 5,000 BCE. It's interesting to note that a story similar to The Great Flood appears in the much earlier Mesopotamian work, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

3. The Day After Tomorrow - 2004

The Day After Tomorrow
The Day After Tomorrow. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Directed, co-produced, and co-written by Roland Emmerich, The Day After Tomorrow was based on a 1999 book titled The Coming Global Superstorm, by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber. The film stars Dennis Quaid as Jack, a climatologist who predicts a sudden new ice age, but who isn't believed, which is typical for these types of movies.

Jack's son Sam, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is in New York City when temperatures suddenly drop to below −150 °Fahrenheit (−101 °C) and he and a few friends take refuge in the New York Public Library, whose books become fuel for the giant bonfire that keeps them warm.

The science behind the film: The Day After Tomorrow depicts what would happen if the North Atlantic Ocean Circulation, also known as the Thermohaline Circulation, were to be disrupted.

Thermohaline Circulation
Thermohaline Circulation. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

This is the pattern of deep ocean currents that flow thousands of meters below the surface and helps to drive the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)As warm water flows northwards it cools and forms ice. As a consequence, the surrounding seawater becomes saltier, and its density increases. This cold, dense water sinks and slowly spreads southwards, several kilometers below the surface. Eventually, it gets pulled back to the surface and warms in a process called “upwelling”. The entire process drives a global conveyer belt that influences the weather all over the world. However, a 2015 study showed that global warming has caused the AMOC to weaken by 15 to 20 percent over the last 200 years.

If global warming causes a shutdown of the Thermohaline Circulation and the AMOC, according to a 2004 study by the University of Illinois, it would trigger cooling in the North Atlantic, Europe, and North America. Particularly affected would be the British Isles, France, and the Nordic nations.

Other consequences of the Thermohaline Circulation slowing or stopping would be an increase in major storms and floods, a collapse of plankton stocks, warming of Alaska and Antarctica, more frequent and intense El Niño events, and the depletion of oxygen in Earth's oceans. This is called an oceanic anoxic event, which in the past have caused mass extinctions.

4. Independence Day - 1996

Independence Day
Independence Day. Source: 20th Century Fox/Wikimedia Commons

This film made many of its stars household names, including Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, and Randy Quaid. Smith plays a fighter jet pilot, Pullman plays the U.S. president, Jeff Goldblum is a satellite whiz who travels, along with his father, played by Judd Hirsch, to warn the president that the extraterrestrials who have come to Earth are about to launch a major attack. 

Throw in Area 51, an alien in residence there cared for by a crazy-looking Brent Spiner, and Randy Quaid's performance as an alcoholic former pilot who claims he was once abducted by aliens and you've got the recipe for a blockbuster. Indeed, at $817.4 million, the film was the highest-grossing film of 1996 and the second highest-grossing film at the time behind only Jurassic Park (1993). Independence Day won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

The science behind the film: On October 19, 2017, Canadian astronomer Robert Weryk was reviewing images from the Pan-STARRS1 telescope, which sits on top of a 10,000-foot peak on the Hawaiian island of Maui when he spotted something unusual.

The job of Pan-STARRS1 is to search for "near-Earth objects," such as asteroids and comets. The object that caught Weryk's attention was moving a whopping 200,000 miles per hour (321,869 kph) - very fast for either an asteroid or comet.

Other scientists soon began tracking the object, which was around a city block in length. More puzzling was its shape, which was described as like either a cigar or a pizza. Most puzzling of all was that the object wasn't following the typical elliptical path around our Sun, but rather was moving in a straight line.

Scientists concluded that the object had to have come from outside our solar system, and the International Astronomical Union officially named it 1I/2017 U1, or "'Oumuamua", which is Hawaiian for "scout". While some scientists thought Oumuamua was an unusual comet, Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb proposed that Oumuamua was an alien spacecraft.

Loeb backed up his theory with a paper that described 'Oumuamua's "non-gravitational acceleration," and Loeb included one of Sherlock Holmes's most famous sayings: "... when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Other scientists immediately piled on, but Loeb refused to back down, and he wrote the book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth in which he makes the case that 'Oumuamua may have been propelled by solar radiation. This would require it to have a surface only one millimeter thick, making it essentially one large light sail. Loeb concluded that "'Oumuamua must have been designed, built, and launched by an extraterrestrial intelligence."

The first extrasolar planet confirmed to orbit a sunlike star outside of our solar system was found in 1995 circling the star 51 Pegasi, and was named 51 Pegasi b, or "Dimidium". By 2018, over 2,600 exoplanets had been found, and of those, it is estimated that 1.5 billion to 2.4 billion planets in our galaxy could harbor life. 

During the 1960s, the astronomer Frank Drake developed the Drake Equation, which estimates the number of alien civilizations with which we might be able to communicate. The equation includes the number of habitable planets, the number of those which will develop sophisticated technology, and the length of time civilizations will exist.

In 2019, at a workshop in Paris, French researcher Jean-Pierre Rospars, speculated that while aliens have reached Earth, they haven’t contacted us because they realize that, "it would be culturally disruptive for us to learn about them." If they ever do contact us, Roland Emmerich is going to have a whopping tale to tell.

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