After a failed geoengineering attempt to halt global warming by injecting a “cooling substance” into the Earth’s atmosphere, Earth’s surface has frozen over and temperatures have plunged to -119.6 degrees. As a result, the remaining 3, 000 human inhabitants of Earth seek refuge on a train that circles the globe infinitely. The Great Ark’s sole power source is an ‘eternal engine’, a perpetual motion machine whose inner workings are never disclosed.
This is the dystopian backdrop of Snowpiercer, the 2013 science-fiction blockbuster that takes us into the chilling consequences of a plausible alternate world, and further into the startingly familiar power flow of this micro community.
Of course, the science is truly just a backdrop: a hypothetical microcosm that specifies a set of impossible parameters and chronicles how humans would react. Only in such contrived conditions would we see the train’s wealthy dining on lavish upholstery, juxtaposed against the tail enders, who in Extremis either sacrifice their limbs or live in unending guilt (as Curtis, the main character, does acutely). While one could wax on about the social commentary of the movie, this article is meant to break down the plausibility of Snowpiercer’s Earth’s planetology. Thus, I’ll be discussing the stupidity of the benign Snowpiercer overlords’ decision to inject sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, while having a look at its tenuous scientific grounding in our world.
First, however, a message from our sponsors: The First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. Ever looked at that train perpetually circumnavigating Earth and thought: gee, how cool would that be on Earth? Well, we can sell you something better: ACTUAL PHYSICS. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only transformed; thus, the train would have to generate work without energy input, which is impossible. The Second Law states that an isolated system will move towards disorder, and that as more energy is transformed, more is wasted. The train therefore must conserve 100% of its energy. No way José. Intrigued? Contact us at www.yournearestphysicsteacher for further information, and use the code SNOWPIERCER for a 100% discount!
Onto geoengineering. The technical Oxford definition is “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of an environmental process that affects the earth’s climate, in an attempt to counteract the effects of global warming”. In Snowpiercer, climate alarmists injected sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to mimic the effects of volcanoes in cooling the atmosphere. Volcanoes, when they erupt, release sulfur-rich compounds which form sulfur aerosols (a mix of sulfuric acid and water vapor) when reacting with water. Deadly sulfur aerosols condense into sulfuric acid droplets and form the grey blanket of haze above the tantrum-throwing volcano, which increase the albedo, or the reflectivity of the planet, to sunlight.
Here is what’s happening in Chemistrian:
2SO2 + O2 ->2SO3
SO3 + H2O ->H2SO4
Sulfur dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for months and eventually diffuse across it, blocking sunlight over a larger surface area and causing a cooling effect on the globe. We observed this effect in the cataclysmic 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, when 20 tonnes of sulfur dioxide entered the atmosphere and caused a global temperature reduction of 0.5 degrees Celsius.
It makes sense then, that we’re tussling with forces far beyond our control; in this case, a carefully evolved global system whose mechanisms we’re still trying to unearth. The result of injecting these particulates in Snowpiercer is, manifestly, the production of a snowball Earth.
Additionally, the strategy is more of an avoidance one: it doesn’t really solve the heart of the problem, which is the increasing amount of carbon dioxide humans are collectively producing. Luckily, strategies to reduce carbon emissions do exist in our world today, and in fact, we have sufficient resources to reach a carbon free world if mobilized.
At the time of writing this list, I received a notification on my phone that Elon Musk had donated $100 million to the world’s beacon of hope: a carbon capturing technology by a Swiss company called Climeworks (which I’ll be covering in the tier list instalment when reviewing our very own planet Earth). A better world is stored up inside the resources we have as a global community, and in those neurons firing right at the moment.
Let us shed our 2020 pessimism and unite to prevent climate Ragnarok!
Oh yes, the tier list. Snowpiercer is hereby benighted an S.
S for Senseless Science but also for Superb Subliminal Social Signaling.
Brady, M. (2020, July 16). Snowpiercer Science: Making a Snowball Earth. The Science Of. https://thescienceof.org/snowpiercer-earth/
Hendley, J.W., Stauffer, C. & Newhall, C. (2005). The Cataclysmic 1991 Eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines. U.S. Geological Survey. https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/1997/fs113-97/
Wikipedia editors. (n.d.). Snowpiercer. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snowpiercer