Earth as Waterworld Part I: The Movie

Waterworld: The Movie

Waterworld is a 1995 science fiction set a few hundred years in the future at a time when the polar ice caps have melted and the land areas of the world have been submerged under the oceans, a modern version of Noah’s Flood. The film stars Kevin Kostner. When Director Reynolds quit, Kostner took on the job of directing the film.

I enjoyed this film because for the most part I was able to suspend disbelief in the science. Not everyone was able to do that. Kevin Carr was not impressed by the liberties taken with the science.

Kevin Carr commented that in Waterworld, sea level rises above the level of Denver, Colorado, elevation 1609 meters a mile above sea level. Kevin Carr referred to a National Geographic map and said, “The polar ice caps, which rest on land, can affect sea levels if they melted. However, there is only enough ice to raise the overall sea level about 62 meters (or a little more than 200 feet).”

Could the Earth Become a Waterworld?

My thesis here is that Earth is already a waterworld. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has confirmed what Kevin Carr said and points out that, “The timeline for this event is rather vague: “probably more than 5,000 years, some scientists say”.
NOAA: If All Ice Melted See the tab: About the Science.
Based on the volumes of land ice, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimated the potential sea level rise as 80 meters (about 260 feet). In my opinion, the estimate by the USGS is more reliable than that given by National Geographic.

How the Movie Begins

Waterworld opens to show a revolving globe with rising sea level. The link I provide below shows the entire Continental US being submerged, including the Appalachian Mountains. The clip stops at the title scene to avoid infringing copyright.
Link to the movie Waterworld

New York City

New York City is entirely submerged under the ocean and Costner has to dive deep into the sea to reach street level. So where is the Empire State Building?
The real Empire State Building stands on a site 15 meters above sea level, thus an 80 meter rise in sea level would reach 65 meters above ground level. The building has 102 floors  from the ground to the roof and is 380 meters tall. That means Costner should have been able to enter a window on the 17th floor.
Sackets Harbor, near Oswego, New York, is located at the eastern end of Lake Ontario at an elevation of 87 meters. According to the USGS, there is enough water locked up in the ice to raise the world ocean almost to that level and no higher.
However, the elevation of Oswego is low enough that it did not prevent the construction and opening in 1825 of the Erie Canal. The canal passes near Oswego on the way to Buffalo. The elevation of river water level at Albany 1 meter above sea level and the elevation of Buffalo is 183 meters. Buffalo is about the same elevation as the middle floor of the Empire State Building, the 51st floor.

The Statue of Liberty

In his blog, Anthony Watts, a meteorologist, used the National Geographic estimate of sea level rise. Here I will continue to use the USGS estimate of 80 meters. Watts estimated the height of the site of the Statue of Liberty at about 3 meters.
So where would the waterline be if sea level were to rise 77 meters above ground level?
Watts gives measurements from the National Parks Service: ground level to the tip of the torch is 93 meters. The waterline would be 16 meters below the tip of the torch, a little below the level of Liberty’s chin.
Watts makes a point about the timeline, “How long will it take to reach the NatGeo waterline in the cover photo?”
Watts estimated over 23,000 years at the present rate of sea level rise at New York and then said, “A new ice age will likely be well underway then, dropping sea levels. The water would never get there.”
(This is because a new ice age would again lock up sea water in ice caps. In the last 2.5 million years there have been about 50 periods with advancing glaciers, most recently at intervals of about 100,000 years.
Following the assumption that all polar ice could melt and using 80 meters instead of 65 meters, I estimate the time to melting of the ice caps at about 30,000 years. If sea level rises twice as fast in the future, that would give about 15,000 years.

What, Me Worry?

So whatever assumptions we use, the timeline for melting of the polar icecaps is over 10,000 years.
On the web page cited above, NOAA advised teachers that, “Students may find the one-shot 216-foot rise either too large and too distant in time to bother about, or apocalyptic.”
(“Apocalyptic” refers to the Apocalypse, featuring four bogeymen on horses. Such catastrophic events were used by the ancients before science fiction was invented.)
NOAA and Watts agree that the issue is the timeline. Watts makes the additional point that the long-term threat may be the advancing continental glaciers, not sea level rise.

Waterworld’s Reception

The film was not a box-office success in America but international sales and spin-offs probably allowed the studio to break even.
However, I don’t pay attention to box-office success and have seen the film twice. I would watch the film again for the scenery and the action and a few laughs about other science goofs, which I won’t mention in case I spoil the film for some readers who may decide to view it.

My Conclusion

I conclude that no matter how absurd a proposition may be, it can be turned into a learning experience.
Wikipedia says about waterworlds that, “Earth is the only known astronomical object to have bodies of liquid water on its surface, although several exoplanets have been found with the right conditions to support liquid water.” (Exoplanets are planets outside our solar system.)
Waterworld Part 2 will examine the figure of the Earth as a water planet. Part 2 will take a different approach than Wikipedia.