A meteorologist reviews Geostorm


He watches it so you don’t have to

Whenever you see a new action movie coming out that defies the laws of physics or sense you are always told to “check your brain at the door.” Now for most movies I can do this, I’ll watch a giant green man who got his powers from exposure to radiation punch a Norse god in the face for two hours and happily chow down on the popcorn because hey whatever it’s a comic book. But when it comes to something I’ve been educated and interested in for more than half my life, the door brain checking becomes a bit harder.

I was educated and currently work in the field of meteorology; it’s been a lifelong passion of mine and a subject that I’ve always found fascinating. As Destructoid writer Mike Sounders likes to say I enjoy “sniffing clouds.” So when movies dealing with weather come about I’m always going to look at it through a critical scientific lens as well as a more universal movie-going lens. Geostorm is a disaster no matter which lens you look at it through.

Natural disaster movies are always a hazard when you know how the things they are trying to portray work. Some are not so bad like Twister that uses a real-world experiment and glams it up a bit for Hollywood. The worst offender though is The Day After Tomorrow which not only spits in the face of science but tried to explain it. Geostorm mostly fails at its portrayal of physical science, but it does manage to get a few things right, so let’s look at what they mostly got wrong with a few nods of “almost had it”

Suffice to say, spoilers will follow from this point. But don’t worry, you’ve already seen this movie a hundred times.

The movie starts off with a description of a world ravaged by natural disasters, our world. They don’t try to skirt around the climate change issue and instead face it head-on. It is in 2019 when the bodies pile too high and action must be taken. There is a direct mention of two million people dying in one day because of a heat wave in Spain which is preposterous to me — the highest number of heat wave deaths in recorded history only tops out around 70,000 and that is over the entire period, not one day.

In order to control the weather that is quickly becoming more and more extreme, a network of satellites is put together to control as the movie puts it “the three basic properties of weather. Temperature, pressure, and water.” Here is one area where they actually get things kinda right, but only to an extent. Hypothetically if (and that’s a gigantic if) you could control those three things you might be able to control the weather, but the problem is that the atmosphere is a chaotic sphere of ever-changing layers. Every little bit interacts and is influenced by all surrounding parts of the atmosphere. It wants to be in equilibrium so when a small anomaly such as a pocket of high-pressure forms, you would get a mass of air rushing out of the center. These winds would potentially be more damaging than the initial storm and would beg the question which is worse, a rainstorm or a massive downburst?

This would happen because in atmospheric thermodynamics there are two basic motions, rising and falling. The general rule of thumb is that rising promotes precipitation and storm growth because as a parcel rises it cools and therefore the water vapor condenses, with sinking motion though it generally meaning conditions are improving. Yes, most downward motion is caused by precipitation but the precipitation aides in making the weather more stable. To artificially manufacture “nice weather” would either require a strong burst of downward motion (which would warm the surface significantly as it fell due to the adiabatic lapse rate which states that as air falls it warms) or the complete evaporation of all water molecules in the air which would also require a massive amount of warming, which is one of the leading issues of global climate change, right?

(Image source: Glendale Community College)

So out of the gate, we are already dealing with something that is completely farfetched and I should just stop, right? Nope. Let’s look at some of the disasters that the movie puts forth.

The first disaster that is presented is a highly localized ice storm in a remote Afghanistan village. The area is depicted as being flash frozen with the rest of the desert around it sweltering in 130 degree (freedom unit) heat. Nope. Even if you could cool an area through, as the movie puts it, “using sonic waves to slow movement, therefore, cooling the area” all that cool air would have to go somewhere. Remember the atmosphere wants to be in equilibrium and cold air is denser than warm air so a rush of cold air would have shot out in all directions from the village causing cooling and a massive dust storm. Seems like their miss in the accuracy department actually robbed them of a good action scene.

Next, there was a scene where the high heat caused a chain gas main explosion and widespread building collapse which is a bit more geology and civil engineering for my expertise but now it was all evident, things were headed towards a geostorm. A massive storm that would engulf the entire world and cause the doom of our kind.

Wait, what?

How can a storm be so massive that it covers the entire planet? Also, how can it just form in a few hours? Hurricanes only get to be the size that they are because they spin and churn over the warm ocean for almost two weeks before slamming into land, but I’m supposed to believe a storm could envelop the entire world in a matter of hours? The concept of a geostorm is impossible even from a physical perspective. Eventually, storms just get too big to sustain themselves or they would begin to interfere with each other’s growth and stability.

Take for example this year’s Atlantic hurricane season. At one point Hurricane Irma was chugging along through the Antilles with Hurricane Jose following at a moderate distance behind. Once Irma made landfall and her movement west slowed down, it allowed Jose to close the distance between the two. As the winds of Irma lashed the eastern Gulf of Mexico region, those same winds began to eek into Jose’s storm structure and eventually tore it apart because it created too much of an unfavorable wind to allow Jose to sustain. Jose weakened significantly until Irma was out of the way, but by then Jose was too far north to be in favorable waters and just petered out in the North Atlantic. You can see this interaction in the following video. Irma is the larger storm on the left and Jose is the smaller one on the right.

Other reasons why an all-encompassing superstorm would be impossible is because as mentioned earlier the two basic motions of the atmosphere come into play. A storm needs upward motion to both grow and sustain itself, and precipitation is a downward motion. So eventually the storm would start to rain itself out. You see this a lot in supercells that don’t sustain growth properly and eventually begin to rain (remember, downward motion) into their updraft column (the part of a storm structure that allows growth) which quickly brings about the storm’s death.

The movie then hit the brakes with the natural disasters until the final half hour where they just slap you across the face with every single one that you saw in the trailer. Seriously there were no surprises, you saw all of the disasters in the movie in the trailer. There’s a case to be made that trailers give away too much of the movie they are promoting, but that’s another article. So now let’s rapid-fire through the disasters that popped up in the final third of the movie.

At one point there are hailstones the size of a bus falling. Nah. Hailstones form when frozen precipitation in the upper levels of the atmosphere fall enough in the atmosphere to be above freezing, they then partially melt, and are shot back up into the freezing levels thanks to upward motion. The liquid that formed refreezes but takes on more mass because as water freezes it expands. This cycle continues until the hailstone is too large for the updraft to keep up in the air and it falls to the earth as hail. In order to keep a hailstone the size of a bus up in the air long enough to form into that size would require an immense amount of wind, not to mention time which the movie did not allow.

I know it’s hard for me to watch this too

The next disaster shown was a cold front racing on shore in Brazil flash freezing the ocean and everyone in its path. Assuming this is being caused by the satellite rushing cold air down from an offshore point, the temperature change that would be required to flash freeze the oceans would be somewhere around -60 degrees Fahrenheit/-35 degrees Celsius. Not saying it would be physically impossible, just that it wouldn’t happen naturally. The whole flash freezing people and an airplane, well, that’s another story entirely.

Another part of the movie that is not physically impossible but exceedingly rare is the multiple tornado cluster that approached a remote village near the end. Tornado research is still years away from being as advanced as other weather phenomena but there have been documented sightings of cluster tornadoes. There is also the belief that some larger tornadoes are just a cluster of mini tornadoes that have merged in one debris cloud but nothing concrete has ever been proven on this theory.

It should be noted though that even to this day the ability to predict where a tornado will form has only a short amount of lead time due to the fact that the actual precise conditions that go into a tornado’s formation are still unknown. So the ability to create a tornado would require that knowledge, so good on this world for cracking that code.

The tidal wave that crashes into Dubai, while a bit exaggerated, is possible if perfect conditions existed. Personally I don’t know how a weather satellite could produce a 100-foot tidal wave. The Persian Gulf does sit on a tectonic plate, but even with that added threat, a tidal wave that would reach as high as the one in the movie is highly improbable.

Finally we get to the climax, where a character literally tries to use the weather that he is controlling to kill off all that stand in his way for power. How does he want to do this? By blowing up a building with lightning.

Gerard Butler looks on as what little sense this movie had disappears

Even in a hyper-unbelievable scenario like the one the movie presents, lightning would not be able to produce the Michael Bay-level explosion that I witnessed at the climax of the movie. The only way lightning would cause such a large explosion is if the entire building was lined with explosives and used a lightning rod as the detonator pin. Never mind the fact that even the most active storm can’t shoot off lightning like it is the lighting coordinator for an EDM concert as the movie portrayed. Also, with how much lightning was going off, you would think you wouldn’t be able to hear the dialogue due to the fact that it would just be a cacophonous roar of thunder.

But of course, the hero saves the day and all the storms immediately die out. In reality, this wouldn’t happen as quickly as portrayed in the movie, but because these anomaly storms’ fuel was cut off, they would not be able to sustain and the storms would quickly burn themselves out. Just not in the matter of seconds.

So yeah, the movie got nearly everything wrong but they did manage to get some things physically right, even if they exaggerated it to unbelievable levels. Don’t get me wrong though, even if they got the science right Geostorm would have remained a boring, by-the-numbers disaster movie that isn’t worth your time.

At least they didn’t mention HAARP, though. Our secret control remains.