My family and I saw the movie Black Panther this weekend, and apparently, much of the United States did too. Reports in Forbes say that several box office records were shattered by the movie. As a long time fan of the Marvel genre of movies, I was very excited to see the next entry in the series. It was cinematically stunning, action-packed, and unique in its focus on the continent of Africa and its people. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but as usual, I always notice things in movies that the average viewer probably does not. As a meteorologist, professor, and director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences program, there were three teachable moments about the weather that caught my eye.
The snowy home of the Jabari Tribe. In Africa? In the movie, the Jabari tribe of Wakanda lived in the mountains. The leader M’Baku and his troops end up being a very important element of the movie. At one point, some of the main characters venture into the territory of the Jabari tribe, and it is very snowy. Some viewers may be puzzled by snow in parts of tropical Africa, but it illustrates something that meteorologists are very familiar with. Temperature decreases with elevation, and snow is often present on mountains even in tropical regions. Let’s consider a place that is not fictional. Mt. Kilimanjaro is located very close to the equator (approximately 3 degrees South) in Tanzania. It is a dormant volcano that rises to 19,341 feet above sea level. According to UltimateKilimanjaro.com, it has five ecological zones: Bushland, Rainforest, Heath, Alpine Desert, and Arctic. The Alpine Desert and Arctic zones, according to the website, are described as follows:
“The Alpine desert receives little water and correspondingly light vegetation exists here. The temperature can vary from over 100 degrees F during the day to below freezing at night…… (The Arctic Zone is) characterized by ice and rock, there is virtually no plant or animal life at this altitude. Nights are extremely cold and the day’s unbuffered sun is powerful.”
Upslope flow causes precipitation and at the altitude of those clouds, it will typically fall as snowfall at certain elevations. By the way, have you noticed my use of altitude versus elevation? Elevation typically describes height above a fixed level (usually sea level) above the ground. Altitude is similarly defined as some height above a point in relation to the ground. However, there can be a subtle distinction. For example, the “mile high” city of Denver is at an elevation of 5280 ft. but a plane may be flying at an altitude of 5280 ft.
Aurora Borealis or Australis in Africa? In one scene of the movie, I saw something in the sky similar to the Aurorae. According to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center website
“The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) are the result of electrons colliding with the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. (Protons cause faint and diffuse aurora, usually not easily visible to the human eye.) The electrons are energized through acceleration processes in the downwind tail (night side) of the magnetosphere and at lower altitudes along auroral field lines. The accelerated electrons follow the magnetic field of Earth down to the Polar Regions where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules in Earth’s upper atmosphere. In these collisions, the electrons transfer their energy to the atmosphere thus exciting the atoms and molecules to higher energy states. When they relax back down to lower energy states, they release their energy in the form of light. This is similar to how a neon light works. The aurora typically forms 80 to 500 km above Earth’s surface.”
The actual scene may have represented where T’Challa was in the world at the time (I honestly do not remember). However, I did wonder if it would be possible in Wakanda, a fictitious country located in East Africa according to the Marvel Atlas Number 2, to see Aurorae. Northwestern Kenya is where many have speculated that Wakanda would be located so it is probably not likely, but on particularly active events, the Aurora Australis might be seen in parts of South Africa.
The Sunsets. In two pivotal scenes, the Wakanda sunsets are referenced as being particularly beautiful. I can certainly see how this might be the case. First, it is important to understand why sunsets appear as they do. As the sun descends beneath the horizon, the sunlight is traveling through much more of the atmosphere than it would be at high noon (see figure above). This causes the shorter wavelengths of light such as blue to be scattered out leaving only the longer wavelength oranges and reds.
However, the beauty of sunsets on the continent of African may also be enhanced by the juxtaposition of the atmospheric phenomenon and the natural landscape. In an African Geographic article entitled, “7 Reasons why Africa is best after sunset,” the writer states
“As the sun sinks below the horizon, burning the sky red, pink and orange, you will find yourself with a refreshing drink in your hand, parked on the edge of a pan. Be still and watch as a herd of elephants come down to drink, reflect on your day in the wild as the shadows lengthen and the fiery sky darkens to mauve. The first stars appear, and the sky seems bigger than it does in the rest of the world. In Africa, you can see a sunset and believe you have just witnessed a miracle.”
Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Sunday Talk Show, Weather (Wx) Geeks, 2013 AMS President