Bad Geology Movies: 2012, 2009



John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, and Woody Harrelson


Premise: What if the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012 really did mark the end of the world? Could we save ourselves?

Obviously, the world did not end on December 21. The Mayans (modern ones) probably had a good chuckle at the premise of this movie and all the hubbub about the apocalypse. Whatever. In this movie there were some wierd things going on, things that didn’t make sense even within the context of the distorted science of the movie itself. Yeah, it was a disaster movie. A scientific nightmare.

The end of the world has been brought on by excess activity in the sun. Actually, it’s kind of funny because the world will end when the sun finally consumes the planet. But we got a few billion years before we need to worry about that. Anyway, apparently the sun’s activity has brought about a new kind of nuclear particle – a different kind of neutrino that is rapidly heating the Earth’s core, rather like how a microwave heats food from the inside out. This is going to cause the cataclysmic destruction of the Earth as we know it.

Of course, all this is happening because of the alignment of the planets that only happens every 640 thousand years. But wait. 640 thousand years is pretty frequent. Why is there no geologic evidence for this happening? There’s the ‘Nemesis Star,’ but that’s, what, every 26 million years or something? Yeah, I don’t know…

These enormous cracks begin to form along the west coast of North America. But they aren’t due to the action of any tectonic plates (according to one of the characters, the Deputy Geologist of the Office of Science and Technology Policy – which apparently actually exists). Ok, well if it’s not plate tectonic, why aren’t there random cracks elsewhere?

There’s a scene where they’re drilling (or so it seems) into a suddenly-dry lake bed in Yellowstone National Park. Our deputy geologist finds out that the temperature is 2700 degrees C at 40,000 feet deep. First, any real geologist would use meters, not feet. It’s about 12,000 meters or about 12 kilometers. I wonder how long they’d been drilling there. That’s just a gripe. But let’s put this in context. How hot is 2700 degrees C?

The Earth’s geothermal gradient (temperature with depth) compared with the solidus for rocks. If the geotherm is to the left of the solidus, the rocks are not melted.

So we’re looking at mantle temperatures. Not molten rock, mind you. The mantle is solid, but very, very hot. So, under Yellowstone it’s really warm. Well, Yellowstone is also sitting on top of a hotspot, where heat from the mantle (and associated volcanics) make it right to the surface. That’s why Yellowstone is there in the first place. So maybe 2700C isn’t so unexpected?

The other part of the story is that apparently the temperature is increasing by 0.5% every hour in this well at Yellowstone. Well, that’s pretty quick. A few hundred degrees a day or so. That’s substantial. I’d be more worried about that than the absolute temperature.

I guess this phenomenon is occurring at other sites around the Earth as well (in the movie, that is). I wish I knew where. The temperature anomaly at Yellowstone is compelling, but again, it’s a hot spot. It’ll go off again eventually, and we don’t need über-nutrinos to do that. What if the other places on the globe where they’ve been taking measurements are also hot spots. What then?

Regardless, the claim is suddenly made that “The Earth’s crust is destabilizing!” whatever that means, because the “Temperature’s rising with incredible velocity!” Is that even English? Would acceleration be a better word? Can you even use velocity to describe temperature change?

The good news is that crazy Charlie (played by Woody Harrelson) is drinking PBR, which is widely acceptable to geologists globally, for no real clear reason.

Oh yeah, and so you know, there was no major planetary alignment on December 21, 2012. This was just kind of made up…

The Theory of ‘Earth Crust Displacement’ is a big deal in this movie. The idea is that the crust destabilizes (whatever that means) and suddenly the crust rapidly moves around on the earth’s surface. It’s tough to be sure what they mean by this in the movie, as they could be referring to a movement of the crust, or a shift of the Earth’s rotation axis, so that the crust has appeared to have moved relative to the rotation axis. This depends upon a destabilization of the ‘subterranean’ crust and an ‘extreme polar instability.’ I have no idea what these things might mean.

The subterranean crust could be anywhere from just below the surface to 70 kilometers down, so what part are they talking about? Also consider that in the Theory of Plate Tectonics, it’s not just the crust that moves. A real geoscientist would be referring to the lithosphere, which is the crust plus a bit of the underlying mantle. So what’s destabilizing? Maybe it’s the connection between the crust and the mantle that’s destabilized? Wow.

The Theory of Plate Tectonics, does a nice job of explaining how the crust and the rest of the lithosphere, moves about on the surface of the Earth. But the crust isn’t going to rotate 23 degrees to the southwest over the course of a few hours. Sorry folks. Earth Crust Displacement is not a real theory in the Earth Sciences.

So far as ‘extreme polar instability,’ I think this is in reference to the Earth’s magnetic field (the north and south poles), though I can’t be certain. They do discuss the sudden reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, and that the south magnetic pole is suddenly in Wisconsin. That the Earth’s magnetic field might reverse itself is no big deal. Geoscience has known about this for a while. The magnetic field has gone back and forth many times over the aeons, in an irregular pattern. This pattern has been used to help assign ages to ancient rocks, in fact, in a field of study called magneostratigraphy. That it would happen over night is a little sketchy. The current state of understanding is that it would take at least a thousand years for this to occur, though we’re still working on the details of how the magnetic field is generated. The magnetic pole in Wisconsin is also no big thing, if you’ve rotated all the Earth’s crust by 23 degrees to the southwest. So this is Ok. Sort of.

Earthquakes: This movie suffers from some of the problems of other earthquake movies in that it implies that earthquakes of magnitudes like 10.9 are even possible. Of course, if we can have Earth Crust Displacement, we can have such huge earthquakes, too.

The tsunamis throughout the movie are a real (scientific) disaster. For one thing, just because there’s an earthquake, doesn’t mean that there’s automatically a tsunami. The tectonic situation has to be correct. There needs to be dip-slip displacement along a fault that is underwater. They have these waves arising *poof* out of nowhere!

The other problem is that a 1500 meter tall wave (which is huge, sure) isn’t going to affect a Tibetan monk living at 4000 meters elevation. Unless, of course, Earth Crust Displacement has made the Tibetan Plateau sink. At this point, you see that things only make sense when you suspend all understanding of the current state of science.

Finally, I just gotta say that once again this movie omits the fact that volcanic ash is, by itself,deadly. Movies always portray ash as soft and fluffy and falling like snow. It’s glass folks. They’re inhaling glass shards. And no one is coughing. Sigh.

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