#4.  2012

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‘Look Mom, a spinning lithosphere!

Geologic Sin Meter:  Mayan Calenderiffic

This rating indicates that the geologic sins in this movie are so outrageous, the world may actually come to an end.

Movie Background: 

The premise of this movie is based on the wild rumors that circulated the internet leading up to 12/21/12, or the day when the Mayan calendar ended.  Ceaseless debates raged over the meaning of this, and hypotheses ranged from the rather benign idea that the Mayans simply didn’t finish the calendar, to the apocalyptic view that the entire universe was at risk of collapsing to a singularity and that all life would cease to exist.

One of the more interesting theories, the one depicted in this movie, is that the Mayan Calendar’s end predicted that the Earth’s core would begin to rapidly heat up from the neutrino bombardment of an increased number of powerful solar storms and bursts.  The thinking behind the general apocalypse hypothesis is that the Mayan Calendar is strongly tied to solar and planetary activity.  The Mayans counted a”Bak’tun”, or calendar cycle, as periods of 400 years that roughly counted star and planetary alignments.  The calendar itself originated around 3114BC, and the 13th Bak’tun ended on December 21, 2012.

The Mayan Long Count Calendar

Courtesy livescience.com

Doomsayers, prophets, experts, academics, and the general public caught onto this cycle ending, and the fervor surrounding the end of the cycle resulted in a media firestorm starting circa 2005.  It spawned numerous movies, television programs, books, articles, and pundit panels, each trying to predict what the end of this calendar cycle was trying to predict.

However, nobody bothered to ask Mayan descendants what they thought.  I suppose the people who conceived of the calendar wouldn’t have any knowledge of it.  The Mayan’s beliefs are not only ancient, but somewhat complex and easily lost in translation.  The rough translation of the inscription at the end of the 13th Bak’tun indicates that God will appear on Earth, although it is not clear what will happen at that point.  Of course, most people took this to mean that the end was nigh, when in fact the Mayans were actually a very positive and forward-thinking culture.  To them, the end of a cycle simply meant the beginning of something new, although it is still unclear as to what they predicted that new beginning would be at the end of the 13th Bak’tun.  Despite this lack of clarity, most Mayan scholars and descendants did not believe that the calendar predicted the apocalypse.

Thankfully, this did not stop Hollywood and others from capitalizing on the marketing monster that is  the apocalypse, and the movie 2012 was released in 2009.  Directed by Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, White House Down), and starring John Cusack (writer Jackson Curtis), Chiwetel Ojiofor (Dr. Adrian Helmsley), Danny Glover (President Thomas Wilson), and Woody Harrelson (Charlie Frost), the movie revolves around the idea that the core heats up rapidly, detaching the lithosphere (crust) from the mantle causing the tectonic plates to spin like a gyroscope.

Dr. Helmsley (Ojiofor), a geophysicist, along with an astrophysicist colleague, have discovered this phenomena in the world’s deepest copper mine, and alert the powers-that-be of their findings.  This sets in motion a plan to save a fraction of the world’s population by building giant “arks” that will be able to navigate the impending destruction and start civilization anew.  The “arks” are, of course, reserved for world leaders and the opulently wealthy, leaving the rest of us poor dregs to be caught up in the apocalypse.

Jackson Curtis (Cusack) is a failed writer that has been recently divorced from his wife (Amanda Peet).  On his custody weekend, he is taking his kids to Yellowstone for a bit of bonding (long drive from LA, but I digress…).  Upon arrival at Yellowstone, they pick up the broadcast of local nut Charlie Frost (Harrelson) who is predicting, what else, the end of the world.

As worldwide geologic disasters begin to occur, it is up to Curtis to get his family to the “arks” before it is too late.

Geologic Background:

The Earth has three layers that can be subdivided further based upon physical and chemical behavior.  For our purposes here, I will discuss the general divisions.

Animated rendering of the Earth’s layers

Courtesy youtube.com

Crust (lithosphere):

Roughly 30km of cool, brittle, felsic continental and oceanic plates that are composed of mostly light elements such as oxygen and silica (78%).  This is what we live on.  The relatively light (less dense) crust is divided into 13 buoyant segments, or tectonic plates, that “float” on the more dense, mafic mantle.  These plates are constantly in motion due to convention currents in the mantle.

Mantle (asthenosphere):

the non-molten, soft, ductile layer under the crust that is roughly 5000km thick and composed of magnesium, iron, nickel, and other heavier elements.  Although it is physically similar to the core (the upper mantle is still solid), it is chemically different and seismic waves behave differently at the boundary, indicating a chemical composition change.


The molten iron center of the planet that serves as the power plant for our world.  Without the core, the Earth’s magnetic field would not exist, and life would not be possible.  The heat in the core is generated by the radioactive decay of this iron-nickel alloy, and cools at a rate of roughly 100 degrees C per billion years.  It is currently theorized to be roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun.

These three layers are closely linked.  The core drives heat into the mantle, causing convention currents that drive motion in the crust.  The dynamic nature of the Earth system drives the rock cycle, water cycle, volcanism, earthquakes, and all other phenomena on our planet.

Basically, they are the chemical remnants of the accretion of the Earth from rocks and gas in the solar system at 4.6Ga, and are divided by physical and chemical differences at transitional boundaries.  They are not separate, nor separable, and none can behave nor exist as they do independent of the others.  This is the reason that Mars is theorized to have once been like the Earth, but is now “dead”; meaning that the core has burned all of its energy, the magnetic field has failed, and a once live, dynamic planet is now a giant, floating rock.

Geologic Sin QnA:

The entire concept of this movie is one long, geologic sin, but I will attempt to hit the high points.

Could the Earth’s core begin to suddenly and rapidly heat up due to solar activity?

In short, F No.  The heat in the core is driven by thermodynamics, i.e. radioactive decay.  The heat of the core has about the same effect on the heat of the sun as solar activity has on it.  In the core, as Uranium and Thorium ions decay, meaning they lose alpha and beta particles, these reactions give off heat, which accounts for the sustained and massive amount of energy in the form of heat that is produced in the core.  Solar winds, flares, storms, and anything-else sun-related have absolutely no effect.

In addition, for the energy, and therefore the heat in the core to rise, would require violations of the laws of thermodynamics, most in particular the first law.  The first law of thermodynamics states, among other things, that in a closed system energy can neither be gained or lost.  This is called the law of conservation of energy or mass, and essentially means that all the energy that exists in the core will be transferred, not lost or gained.

The premise of the idea that the core temperature could suddenly increase, regardless of the cause, implies that energy is being added to the system, or that radioactive decay has accelerated.  In either case fundamental laws of science are violated.  Bummer.

The movie tries to skirt this by the idea that neutrinos (a real energy particle) are radiating from these solar flares causing a microwave effect on the core.  If this were the case, these neutrinos would kill all life and strip the surface of the Earth long before it heated the core by any measurable standard. Neutrinos are radioactive subatomic particles that simply pass through matter anyhow, so their behavior would have to suddenly change in order to for this occur.

Could the tectonic plates detach from the mantle (Earth Crust Displacement Theory)?

Theoretically, if the core did, in fact, heat rapidly for some reason, it is possible that convection currents in the mantle would become more powerful leading to increased motion of the tectonic plates.  Although the plates would not actually detach, they may move more abruptly.

However, this would require a very specific amount of heating, and would still not cause the Earth to behave like a gyroscope.  What is more likely is that increased temperatures in the core would cause increased temperatures in the mantle which would cause melting of the crust.  Volcanism would certainly accompany this, and if a certain temperature was reached, the crust may turn molten (after all, the Earth was at one time a giant lake of fire).  Although catastrophic, particularly for anything living, it would not result in what is seen in this movie.

Would this cause the Yellowstone Super Caldera to erupt like in the movie?

Quite possibly yes.  Let’s assume that the main postulation is theoretically possible and the core does begin to spontaneously heat up.  If this were to happen, more energy would be driven into the mantle.  This absolutely would cause increased volcanism at the surface.

The Yellowstone Caldera sits atop a “hot spot” or mantle plume (depending which theory you buy).  Although the precise causes for these regions are still debated (some scientists theorize that they are the result of convection in the mantle melting the lithosphere, some theorize they originate deep in the mantle), they do exist and Hawaii is the most famous.  These areas are weak spots in the lithosphere where magma from the mantle pushes closer to the surface.  The magma chamber that powers Yellowstone’s geysers, mudpots, and fumaroles is roughly the size of the state of Maine.

If the mantle were to become volatile due to core energy release, the result would almost certainly be catastrophic volcanism all over the world, the Yellowstone Caldera included.  If it did erupt, the results would be actually similar to what is portrayed in the movie.  However, you would not be able to outrun it the way the Jackson Curtis did (cough, BS, cough), particularly if you are anywhere near the caldera itself.  The pyroclastic cloud would be traveling faster than the speed of sound near the eruption, and anything short of an F-16 would have no chance of outpacing it.

Jackson, along with his ex-wife, two kids, and wife’s new boyfriend Gordon, escape in a small aircraft and make it to Las Vegas, where they again must outrun the Yellowstone ash cloud.  Las Vegas is roughly 750 miles from Yellowstone, which means that the cloud would reach the city.  However, it would not reach it looking the way it did in the movie as a low altitude menace.  By that point the cloud would begin to circulate into the atmosphere, and although debris from the eruption may land in Vegas, it is very unlikely that the pyroclastic cloud in all of its glory would reach quite that far.

Would this cause worldwide earthquakes?

Quite possibly yes.  Again assuming that any of this could happen, increased convection in the mantle may well cause increased motion of the tectonic plates, which in turn may result in potentially catastrophic earthquakes.  Earthquakes occur when plates move against one another, get stuck, and then release causing energy to be released.  They also often occur as precursors to volcanic eruptions, and we have already discussed that would likely be part of all this madness as well, again, assuming that you want to assume the assumptions.

However, a 10.9M earthquake on the Moment Magnitude Scale is something that is not theoretically possible.  But, as I have been saying, if you want to simply make up words like “Earth Crust Displacement Theory”(the basis for all of these disasters), I suppose real science is not actually relevant.

Could a tsunami crest the Himalayas?

This is a tough one.  Given that many of the assumptions that would cause this theoretical wave are ridiculous and inaccurate, it is impossible to say whether or not they would cause a 10000m high tsunami that envelopes the world’s highest mountains.  In the movie, the wave is described as 1500m high, which would barely crest the front range of the Rockies, much less the Tibetan Plateau which sits at an average of 4000m.  Did the Plateau sink?  Again, mostly nonsense here.

Could geophysics predict the exact time that the wave would hit?

No.  Given the unpredictability of all of these occurrences, the idea that one could approach with any level of certainty when and where things will happen absolutely is completely ludicrous.

What does any of this have to do with the Mayan Calendar?

Not a damn thing.  Period.  Its mentioned in the film a couple of times as the “Long Count Calendar”, but does not necessarily play an integral part even though its cycle ending and the hype surrounding it are presumably the only reason this film even exists.  The calendar is said to predict planet alignments; the one at the end of the 13th Bak-tun is said to occur every 640,000 years.  In geologic time, this is the blink of an eye, and there is no such occurrence like this in the geologic record.

Final Word:

There are even political inaccuracies in this movie, as Carl Anheuser, White House Chief-of-Staff, is thrust into the Presidency after the deaths of both the VP and the POTUS.  Never mind that CoS is not named in the chain of succession, and the Speaker of the House is 3rd in the succession line…..But this is a topic for a political blog, and The Goat only concerns himself with rocks.

Other than the blatant disregard for any real science, this is an entertaining, albeit long movie (running time 158 minutes).  John Cusack always delivers intriguing performances, and the supporting cast is strong with seasoned actors and Hollywood mainstays such as Woody Harrelson, who adds an excellent comedic tone to an otherwise darkly-toned movie (many billions of people die, albeit without much blood or gore, including some of the main characters and a small dog).

The special effects are quite astonishing as the disasters occur, and like many apocalyptic movies, is at least thought-provoking as to how individuals might deal with the end of the world.  There are the requisite selfless and selfish characters, interpersonal relationships and conflicts, family ties, and the unwavering dedication to survival and salvation in this movie.

At the end of the day, I always like to watch these kind of movies, and Roland Emmerich typically delivers a fun ride that is sure to pack excellent stunts, effects, and action.  Watch it, enjoy it, laugh at its intrinsic ridiculousness, and have fun.  Cheers!

May The Goat be always with you

(Videos courtesy youtube.com)

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