Using an episode of Stargate: Atlantis to explore temperature differentials and storm formation.
Stargate's approach to addressing climate change involves wormholes to a parallel universe. It sounds utterly bonkers, but that far-out science fiction plot contains sneaky, real science. I know, because I put it there.
I worked as the science consultant for Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe. Most of the time I consulted within the Property department, creating science-rich props for actors to interact with. That means I'm the handwriting of the egotistical Dr. Rodney McKay, and develop science to back up the arguments between the approachable Eli Wallace and Machiavellian Nicholas Rush. Working on set for Stargate was the first time in my professional career that someone had ever requested equations by length, and from there it just got stranger and more awesome.
Brain Storm first aired in 2008, the Stargate contribution to the network's Green Week. It proposed a simple solution to climate change: hook up a bridge between parallel universes, and dump all our excess heat into it. This actually resonates with an idea from Doctor Who, where the inevitable heat-death of the universe has been postponed by linking our universe to parallel universes, expanding the closed system. In the Stargate version, a bunch of scientists head to the fanciest conference ever, a black tie event in the desert. Their hosts lock them in with a forcefield, flip on the trans-universe bridge, start pumping heat, and marvel as the temperature drops. Of course, things go awry, the bridge can't be turned off, and the gathered scientists are in danger of freezing to death. If they can't fix it before they die, the problem will impact the whole world, throwing the planet into a sudden, permanent Ice Age. While technically a solution to a warming planet, that's a slim silver lining for global catastrophe.
The best and brightest of scientists surely include Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson! Photography credit: MGM
Now, for the science! This is going to get vaguely spoilery, so if SG:A season 5 is still waiting in your to-watch queue, you might want to go take care of that first.
Astro-Engineering Climate Change
Forget small-scale geo-engineering, in the land of fiction we can pull out planetary-scale astro-engineering solutions to our climate mess. For Brain Storm, the three steps to success, fame, and fortune via astro-engineering are:
Step 1: Build an incredibly efficient heat sink.
Step 2: Build a bridge to another, parallel universe.
Step 3: PROFIT! ...that's not right... Step 3: Dump the excess heat to another universe.
Perfect! A bit overkill as we could just dump the excess heat into space, but by over-engineering the problem and dumping heat into another universe, we also postpone the ever-increasing entropy and heat death of the universe by a teeny, tiny bit. Every mad scientist should congratulate themselves for being so efficient with their problem solving!
The control room whiteboards building from parallel universe theories to terrestrial weather in one long, iterative sequence of equations is one of my favourite chunks of equations from the whole episode, which makes it tragic that I have no good photographs of it.
From parallel worlds to terrestrial weather, in interlocking equations. Photography credit: Mika McKinnon
Building a traversable wormhole to a parallel world is far simpler when you only need to worry about transferring energy, not great, big awkward people. To keep in-universe physics consistency, I based the bridge on the same wormhole physics behind the much, much larger and energy-intensive Stargates that give the franchise its name.
Of course, as the scientific research of a mad scientist not within the Stargate research project, the astro-engineering team had to develop its own unique take on things that is a wee bit less efficient. And, judging from the catastrophic error locking the matter-bridge open and on, a wee bit less effective, too.
Notes on transferring energy between worlds from Tunney's office. Photography credit: Mika McKinnon
Consequences of A Cold Spot
The critical plot-point is when the bridge malfunctions, getting locked on so that heat is drawn from the enclosed facility with no way to turn it off. While this is of immediate danger to the people trapped inside who don't wish to freeze to death in their formal-wear, it would also cause some seriously negative impacts on our unsuspecting planet if the forcefield collapsed.
Very roughly speaking, the universe is lazy. Things tend to fall to their lowest-energy state. A ball on a hill rolls into the valley, or heat dissipates over time. A dense building-sized package of extremely cold air suddenly plopped into a hot desert would cause serious havoc to local weather. Worse, a constant heat-draw ensures that the cold air would never, ever equilibrate to warmer air, maintaining and magnifying the storm.
The facility forms the eye of the event, the temperature unbalance around which all other weather is created. Because cold air is dense, the air around the facility is higher density, thus higher pressure than the surrounding region. If the force field wasn't in place, or after it had collapsed, air would be drawn down from above and spread along the ground.
In our fictional scenario, the heat-pump is drawing all heat, dropping the ambient temperature to absolute zero. This is much, much colder than room temperature. Because the temperature gradient is so extreme, the high pressure to low pressure (from the facility to the rest of the world) gradient would be equally intense, resulting in horrifically powerful winds trying to equilibrate air pressure. Oddly, the cold eye is the very best chance for clear skies, but I don't think blue skies would be very reassuring in the circumstances.
What happens as that wallop of cold air grows from a building-sized package to a massive, well, mass? It starts out somewhat tame as a cold front.
Cold air is denser than hot air, so the mass of cold air would stay low, spreading horizontally along the ground in the ultimate cold front. As denser air creeps along the ground, a wedge of cold air lifts hotter air, forming a low-pressure area. All temperature gradients sharpen along the front; with our already scifi-intense temperature difference, the unstable boundary between hot and cold air forms a field of tornadoes.
Tornados forming in the unstable boundary between cold air within the building, and hotter air along the force-field. Image credit: MGM
As hot air hits cold air, the dew point drops and water condenses (like your moist, warm breath forming fog on cold mornings). However, our secret facility is in a dry desert, without much water in the air to condense. If the facility had been along a coast, severe thunderstorms would form along the front. In the desert, dust is raised by the wind but otherwise the cold air is visually indistinctive. While most people think of deserts as being hot, they're actually defined by their lack of rainfall so a cold desert is a real thing. You already know about one: windy Antarctica.
But eventually, the cold front (and its associated lower pressure) will reach water. This is where things go from windy to catastrophic. When a low pressure zone passes over an ocean, the low pressure allows for hot, moist air laden with sea spray to rise. This moist air condenses into clouds and rain. The heat engine builds as long as it is over water, eventually forming a hurricane. In the real world, even powerful storms quickly die off as they head inland and are cut off from the water supply, but this fictional cold air mass could grow to proportions so epic that it is always being fed by fresh sea spray.
The first problem-solving scientists in the shot were pessimists, wondering how bad things would get instead of trying to solve the problem. Photography credit: Mika McKinnon
With an extreme artificial temperature difference, the cold front would continue to spread, eventually creating a mega-storm unheard of even in disaster movies. Some of the background scientists got into an argument trying to figure out just how big the eye of the storm would eventually get. Poor lady-scientist-in-blue and Einstein-hair-guy were unable to apply normal techniques because the usual calculations based on temperature gradient suggest the eventual formation of a planet-wide storm with an eye larger than the circumference of the Earth! An infinite pool of zero-degree air is seriously equation-breaking scary.
But that never happens, because our heroes save the day. This is where the job of science consultant goes from a strange version of teaching to a downright creative task. Our hero-character Dr. McKay is well-established to be extremely clever, and he's being assisted by popular-culture icons Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. They can't solve the problem too soon, but their failed attempts better be up to the standards of their collective genius! So, what are some ways to shut down the matter-bridge to another universe that could have worked, but didn't?
The hero-board in all its unobstructed glory. Photography credit: Mika McKinnon
The props that a main character interacts with are hero-props. Of all the whiteboards in the shot, all covered back-to-front in science topically related to the plot-problem, this was the one that McKay, Nye, and deGrasse Tyson used for their argument on how to get themselves out of this mess. This is the hero-board, unobstructed and available for your viewing pleasure. Here's my challenge to you: How many failed-solutions can you identify? Are they clever enough ways to break the scenario to maintain our heroes' genius-credibility? Do you have alternate scenarios that you think should have been included? Winners will be rewarded with the blue-star of Recommendation, and endless bragging privileges.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Martin Gero, and Mika McKinnon talking about science-y stuff during filming of Brainstorm. Photography credit: Joseph Mallozzi