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Is it possible for the Earth's atmosphere to combust?

 
 
Reply Sat 27 Feb, 2010 05:07 pm
I'm a screenwriting student living in Los Angeles. I have a studio interested in an eco-disaster script that I've written but they want a little more convincing science in it. I am looking for experts in hopes of finding someone who might be able to describe a scenario in which the Earth's atmosphere could potentially combust due to solar activity or global warming... and if such an event is impossible, a convincing way to "fake" it. This is the movies after all.

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Type: Question • Score: 4 • Views: 8,105 • Replies: 15
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littlek
 
  1  
Reply Sat 27 Feb, 2010 05:09 pm
@russerslick,
Back during the begining of the atomic age people were concerned that an atomic (and then maybe nuclear too) bomb would set the atmosphere ablaze. Apparently this fear was unfounded and disproven by theoretical mathematics.
russerslick
 
  1  
Reply Sat 27 Feb, 2010 05:50 pm
@littlek,
Reading about these particular atomic fears is what gave me the idea for this screenplay in the first place. From all the information I could find it seemed as thought they never actually disproved that it couldn't happen, just that we humans couldn't produce enough heat to make it happen. I was wondering if perhaps the sun itself might be able to cause the necessary heat for such an event to happen?
Joe Nation
 
  1  
Reply Sat 27 Feb, 2010 06:01 pm
Yup. They feared that the hydrogen bomb would cause a reaction with all of the hydrogen in the atmosphere and the world would end in one single burst of flame.

(For an interesting twist on that see Vonegut's Cat's Cradle or look up Ice Nine.)

You could envision a way that the Nitrogen would be affected (It's 70 per cent of the atmosphere) adding one electron and one neutron to it would make all the Nitrogen into Oxygen which sounds good until you find out how toxic oxygen really is. Look that up.
The good thing -moviewise- is it wouldn't kill everybody right away.

Joe(send me a check)Nation
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littlek
 
  1  
Reply Sat 27 Feb, 2010 06:01 pm
@russerslick,
Well, our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen which as far as I know isn't combustible. It is only 21% oxygen. I suppose there could be some way to combust the air, but If it were the sun, life on earth would long be dead before it did set the atmosphere on fire.

Maybe you can describe the plot a little...?
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TheCorrectResponse
 
  1  
Reply Sat 27 Feb, 2010 07:49 pm
@russerslick,
Unfortunately for your story, this doesn’t even pass the laugh test. Diatomic nitrogen is virtually inert. Even creating Nitrogen Oxides are endothermic reactions; it TAKES energy rather than gives it up and in the nitrogen oxides the oxygen is actually the fuel as well as the oxidative agent.

What you are probably alluding to is during the Manhattan Project, Edward Teller (re: Dr. Strangelove), did some calculations working on “The Super”. Teller largely refused to work on the A-bomb and spent his time and annoyed others with his ideas of the hydrogen bomb. It was in these calculations that Teller provided the mathematical model of the end of the world. Stopping the project dead! Thankfully, among Teller’s annoying habits was one of sloppy (unbelievably sloppy) math. Bethe redid the calculations and estimated the scenario had a 1 in 1 million chance of occurring. We've learned lots of physics since then.

The bigger bummer for you is Teller meant a nuclear fusion reaction involving nitrogen in the atmosphere. “burning” in this sense meaning fusion not combustion. Even in normal stars nitrogen cannot be “burnt” in either sense of the word. Sorry.

For plotline can I interest you in the idea of a “Large Wooden Badger”?
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sullyfish6
 
  1  
Reply Sat 27 Feb, 2010 07:57 pm
How about combustible garbage (launched over the years into space), finally coming back into earth's atmosphere, hurling toward us in a huge fireball ?
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roger
 
  1  
Reply Sat 27 Feb, 2010 08:31 pm
@russerslick,
Well, if it's a story, you need a sudden release of all the methane trapped in the arctic ice. Global warming does this, you know. Surely, you can come up with your own source of ignition. I can't do everything for you.
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russerslick
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Feb, 2010 03:35 pm
Thanks for the replies so far.

@Joe Nation: Interesting idea. I'm sure it's probably impossible but adding a single electron and neutron sounds simple enough that it might pass a layman's general scrutiny.

@The CorrectResponse; I appreciate your detailed factual input.

@littlek: The basic idea did spring from the scientists back in the days of the Manhattan Project who though they might combust the atmosphere, but it has been moved to present day to incorporate global warming and solar activity. Basically the largest solar flare ever recorded has occurred and is slowly heating the Earth's upper atmosphere to the point of combustion. Planes are falling from the sky, heatwaves are destroying crops, people, etc. Methane is being released from the Arctic (as someone on here actually mentioned) and adding to the problem. The heroes of the story must save the day. While I descirbe the event, I don't really describe HOW it could happen, and that's what the studio wants... even if it's not possible.

I'm just a student. Having a studio interested in my idea is exciting. If I was actually employed by the studio I'm sure they have an army of experts and consultants who would help, but I don't have access to that. So before anyone laughs me out of the building... yes of course I realize that this is pretty much a ridiculous scenario. But movies are all about suspending your disbelief. Look at The Day After Tomorrow... 2012... Twister? Stupid and implausible, yes. Highbrow entertainment, no. But they are entertaining to the general public and profitable. If you understand how it REALLY works, these movies are laughable. But the general public by and large has no idea. Hollywood likes pseudo-science when it can create cinematic disasters for big bucks. My story is FICTION and will not follow exact science or pass a "laugh test." Hence my first post when I said I'd be willing to fake it.
TheCorrectResponse
 
  2  
Reply Sun 28 Feb, 2010 04:52 pm
@russerslick,
Actually I was going to ask you that: Why would you care about scientific accuracy when you see what’s out there? Remember the answer to the question:
”Are you smarter than a fifth grader?” Is usually, sadly: no!

If you are limiting the cause to either use solar or greenhouse AND you don’t need to actually combust the entire atmosphere you can come up with something at least passing plausible.

You can have a very large corona mass ejection, better yet, a series of them (spaced at the WORST possible time for the Earth). You can then heat the atmosphere at your leisure. You could take the atmosphere to say 1000 degrees at max. This will allow your story to breath, your other scenario would have been: we are here/we are gone (or saved). Frankly it’s hard to work in the requisite gratuitous sex scenes. Trust me; bad things happen with out the entire atmosphere going up. I believe someone found Fahrenheit 451 to be plenty (and that for only very localized areas). The first one throws out part of the power grid the second the entire Earth's power grid, etc.

In this scenario you can have the atmosphere close to the surface stay cooler so that the menace can be seen descending, for example when planes cruising at an altitude of 34,000 feet suddenly start to fall from the sky. They don’t need to be flying through a fire-filled sky -- aircraft and the pilots in them don’t generally do well in 500 degree heat for any length of time. Set the aircraft on fire but SAVE THE ATMOSPHERE (if not the whales).

Think about it: “Last week/yesterday/whatever we saw a flock of geese way up just catch on fire, today it was a hawk soaring a lot closer to the ground!” [As he gently pulls her down by her auburn hair and…”]

By the way, I get credit for any Large Wooden Badger in the story.
russerslick
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Feb, 2010 06:41 pm
@TheCorrectResponse,
@CorrectResonse: I care about accuracy (or at least an attempt at accuracy) simply because so many movies have no regard for it. Personally, I think a disaster film that depicts something that really seems like it COULD happen would be more frightening than something that MIGHT happen, even if said film plays a little loose with the facts. Ultimately, this script will end up describing a scenario which will most likely be impossible, but I want it to happen in the most scientifically possible way. Does that make sense? I have a few phone meetings scheduled with UCLA Atmospheric Science grads for next week to get their take.

Basically, instead of just making up stuff at random like Roland Emmerich or his ilk, I want to at least ground the story in fact before spinning off the fiction. Then, with my luck, a studio will buy it, hire someone else to rewrite it, take out everything that makes it scientifically possible, and then sell it to Roland Emmerich.

Oh, the horror.
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Carl-Snyder
 
  1  
Reply Thu 6 Jun, 2013 08:23 am
@russerslick,
I don't know if you've already set the screne play up already, but your best bet would be to say "the magnetosphere has deteriorated to such an extent that an increasing amount of free electrons penetrated the atmosphere colliding with H20 in the lower atmosphere that separates the bonds releasing a greater amount of hydrogen. Because hydrogen is so light it travels upwards and collects in the upper atmosphere until a large meteor hits the atmosphere and explodes due to ram pressure causing the ignition of the upper atmosphere which destroys the ozone layer, effectively setting the world ablaze from the sun's radiation.". It's a far stretch but it's your best option.
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CanguruRat
 
  1  
Reply Sat 23 Nov, 2013 05:58 am
I am not a chemist, but nitrogen is really inert, so I guess the atmorphere could not combust.

I am guessing that in your scipt people would survive in underground bunkers or something like that. But you don't really need to get rid of the atmosphere to make characters do that! Good old atomics, extreme pollution or biological weapons can do that.

And just to make it clear: global warming definitely CANNOT combust the atmosphere or pretty much anything else. Even if the greenhouse effect was super potent, we would all be killed by the heat before wood started to combust.
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TomWuorio
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Feb, 2016 12:18 am
@russerslick,
Perhaps in some marvelous way you might connect the aluminum dust , (along with other things they spray over our heads worldwide), via the infamous and largely ignored Chem Trails.
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SandOwl
 
  1  
Reply Tue 12 Sep, 2017 12:29 am
@russerslick,
russerslick, have you ever heard of the 1960s film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea? Same thing goes on. The Sky is set ablaze, people experience dying crops, lack of water, wild fires etc. I think it's already been done.
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cameronleon
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Oct, 2017 10:15 pm
@russerslick,
Why not changing the source of that fire in the atmosphere?

https://inhabitat.com/china-developing-combustible-ice-as-new-energy-source/

Quote:
Combustible ice has been found in high altitude frozen plateaus as well as underwater in marine sediments. Natural gas hydrates are essentially just frozen methane and water and can literally be lit on fire bringing a whole new meaning to fire and ice. Researchers still need to get a better understanding of how best to handle the fuel, for it to be commercially exploited. The US DOE is looking into it as well and researchers expect that the hydrate will have to go through a phase change and melt it into methane and water before it can be efficiently combusted. If left to melt on its own as the earth warms though, methane could be released into the atmosphere, and it could cause even more damage than if it were just burned.

One cubic meter of combustible ice contains 164 cubic meters of regular natural gas and is considered to have few impurities, meaning it can burn cleaner with less pollutants. While reserves of combustible ice have been found around the world, China’s discovery is big and estimates say that there is enough energy frozen in the tundra to provide the country with energy for 90 years. Natural gas, which is not a zero emission fuel, can only be considered a “cleaner” energy source compared to oil, but given the alternative of it just being released from melting, it might be wise to continue research on this new energy source.


Any mountain where ice in Winter and water in Summer impedes with their pressure the release of the combustible gas can be the next source of flames after a meteorite causes the evaporation of the ice/water and lite the gas.

The impact increased the cracks on earth and great amounts of that combustible gas spread out to the atmosphere. The fire on the air, heat from the underwater cracks with living fire from lava fighting to reach the surface with strong force causing the evaporation of water from the ocean... hot vapor, fire on the sky... such an ugly scenario...

I better move to Australia, because that land is always the last place where nuclear bombs radiation arrives...

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