4 Myths About Natural Disasters Movies Want Us To Believe
Welcome to Hollywood Myths, Cracked — our new series where we look at some of the hyperbolic science moviemaking folks love drowning us in as they destroy planet Earth in front of our eyes one ginormous tsunami at a time. God, it sure is fun watching. However, we cannot in good conscience stand idly by, pretending that any of these dodgy albeit extremely entertaining special effects represent anything close to reality. Even though it all looks pretty rad. Soooo rad, you guys.
Anyway, here are some examples of how Hollywood egregiously uses our fear of apocalyptic events to bypass real and accurate science. It’s just that easy, we guess.
No, Ocean Impacts And Tsunamis Won’t Go Down Like In The Movies
We’ve all seen them. Those wily little (huge) asteroids and comets — that up until a week earlier in the movies no one even knew existed — hurtling toward Earth and hitting one of our oceans, causing waves the size of skyscrapers to engulf any and all surrounding coastal cities.
It’s probably the sequence made most famous by Deep Impact, but there’s also the killer comet scene in Greenland:
And more recently, in Don’t Look Up:
Lucky for us, the end won't be exactly like in the movies. It’ll still be insanely awful, mind you. Just a different kind of awful. Scientists have created simulations to get an idea of exactly how a colossal space rock impact would go down, and it turns out that gigantic ocean waves will be the least of our problems as they actually tend to teeter out and vanish pretty quickly. It’s kind of like when you throw a rock into a pond — the immediate ripples are big, but they become smaller the further out they go.
Tsunamis are almost always caused by earthquakes. That is, activity happening on the ocean bottom that causes a displacement of water as the pressure spreads out and up. Space rocks come from above, so it’d make sense that, yes, they’d cause a great big splash — any nearby ship would surely be wrecked — but they probably won’t create a tsunami. In fact, a big rock falling from space into our ocean will be terrible at making waves because it'll lose 80% of its impact energy to the huge amount of water that’ll immediately vaporize.
Galen Gisler, a senior researcher in physics and geology at Los Alamos National Laboratory (and who made the video up there along with his colleagues), said that “the folklore has been that tsunamis from impactors will be the danger … The splash wave can be very dangerous, out to tens of kilometers, but beyond that, they fall away more sharply.” Gisler calculated that only a tenth of 1% of an impact’s kinetic energy will be spent on forming waves.
So, there you have it. Unless the impact is within a 12-mile range (20 kilometers) of a city’s coastline, no movie-level of destruction will occur. Anything 60 miles (100 km) away will have practically no impact at all, and we’d all be stuck looking stupid trying to recreate the Téa Leoni/Maximilian Schell scene on the beach with our dogs because we thought we were going to die.
Dormant Volcanoes Don’t Simply Kick Back To Life Like In The Movies
Listen, I’ll give it to you straight: I freaking love Dante’s Peak. Give me Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton trying to out-drive a violent volcano on a bed of molten rock any day of the week. They even save the dog! It’s delightful. Sure, even though Universal Studios hired three retired volcanologists as consultants, the science in the movie is still hilariously liberal and, at times, straight-up botched, but good golly gosh, I’ll never tire watching them row that darn boat down that absurdly acidic mountain stream.
INTO MY VEINS! So good. But okay, let’s discuss because there’s a lot to talk about here. Like the fact that lava from a volcano like the one in the movie won’t flow like that. The shape of the Dante’s Peak volcano is that of a stratovolcano, which means that its lava has a very high viscosity and won’t flow as fast as that river of lava coming through Grandma’s walls. Due to its super thickness, it will move much slower — which also means it’ll cool down faster, lose its spreading power, and give everyone more than enough time to evacuate and get the heck out of Dodge.
Because lava is hot, people. Like really, insanely, will-fry-your-insides-for-you hot. We’re talking thousands of Fahrenheit degrees, which means that being so close and practically surrounded by it — like our little fam in Stubborn Grandma’s cabin — would cause someone to either pass out (and die) from serious burns or literally burst into flames (and also die). There’s a scene in Volcano where John Carroll Lynch jumps onto flowing lava and sinks into it, like his melting. Humans don’t melt. We burn, and dumbass Stan over here would totally have burst into flames long before this supposed heroic but utterly ridiculous scene even happened.
But it’s Volcano, a movie where a lava crater opens up in the middle of L.A. — a thing that will also never happen because volcanoes don’t just pop up wherever they want like they’re Earth’s raging pimples.
Anyway, back to the movie where Pierce Brosnan wears Golf Dad clothes. Even though volcanoes do have craters with acidic lakes, it apparently takes quite a while for acidic gasses to get into the water and rise to the point where they can melt boat engines and burn grandmas to death. That seems to be the movie’s biggest problem: Everything happens a little too fast for a volcano that’s been dormant for 7,000 years. According to scientists who reviewed the movie, the earthquake that signaled the volcano waking up to do its whole ‘splodey thing was way too big. In reality, the initial earthquake wouldn’t immediately bring a town to its knees like that.
PURE EYEBALL PLEASURE! But yeah, that scene is a gross exaggeration, according to the folks who do science. Rushing volcanic activity in movies seems to be a thing, though. Pompeii did the same, with a NASA volcanologist explaining that while the film correctly portrays the historical sequences, the time frame was most definitely sped up. Evidence shows that the first explosion of the famous Mount Vesuvius eruption (that destroyed a string of Roman cities, including Pompeii) occurred somewhere around 1 pm. However, those nasty pyroclastic clouds only reached Pompeii the next morning. Not, like, immediately.
The effects of these literal fire clouds, however, are depicted pretty accurately. Getting hit by a pyroclastic flow really is a fast but nasty way to go.
You Can’t See ‘The Eye Of The Storm’ Inside A Tornado
Helen Hunt saw it in Twister:
Pete saw it in Into the Storm:
Which is just incredible because it shouldn’t be possible at all. You can see the eye of a storm inside a hurricane or a cyclone — called the “stadium effect” because it feels like standing in the middle of a big and quiet sports stadium — but, according to meteorologists, it’s impossible to see one from inside a tornado. See, while hurricanes are pretty damn huge, tornadoes are relatively small and narrow, meaning that any lull in its center probably won’t last long enough to shut out all sound, cue the Profound Movie Score, and let a person enjoy a significant life moment or whatever.
If anyone does experience a moment of silence, it'll be due to the intense drop in air pressure that caused their eardrums to pop.
Earthquakes Don’t Open Up The Earth To Swallow People Hole
If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that a natural disaster movie isn’t that if it’s not exaggerating at least something. Hurricane movie? Cool, let’s make the storm surge swoop up a boat and fly it straight into the Golden Gate Bridge. An asteroid hitting our planet? Great, let’s go blow it up, and make Ben Affleck a hero of Earth somehow. In general, the audience can forgive an extreme hyperbole here and there and even embrace it if it's done in good faith. This is why a movie like San Andreas, with its many, many liberties, truly tests our forgiving nature.
Behold, for instance, what’s going on here:
Incredible. We probably don’t need to tell you that the actual San Andreas fault line cannot cause a tsunami. For one, it mostly stretches out inland and not underneath the ocean floor where tsunamis are usually triggered. The filmmakers actually consulted with Thomas Jordan, the director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, but Jordan himself said “they probably didn’t take much of my advice,” and we’re going to undoubtedly agree with him.
Because an earthquake caused by the San Andreas fault — or any fault for that matter — is not going to render this:
See, the San Andreas fault is a strike-slip fault, and even though a bit of it touches out over the coastline, these types of fault lines do not create the needed uplift and downward movement necessary for a tsunami anyway. Also, if a fault line should just crack open like an egg (which it just can't) and leave a giant crater in its wake, it’s not going to cause any friction — that thing that happens when the Earth is basically rubbing its plates together. You know, that thing that causes the actual earthquake.
But sure, it’s all good. Let’s just all enjoy watching The Rock fly a helicopter, skydive, save a speedboat from being crushed by a cargo ship while riding a humongous tsunami wave, and rescue everyone he cares about while the rest of San Francisco burns. That’s Hollywood, baby.
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Thumbnail: Paramount Pictures; Netflix