Amazon’s Sci-Fi Action Movie of 2021 Reveals an Urgent Global Crisis

In Amazon's latest action-packed movie, The Tomorrow War, science teacher Dan Forester (Christopher Pratt) fights against the White Spikes, vicious alien monsters capable of ripping humans to pieces. But first Forester must figure out how these beasts originated in order to destroy them. In the answer, the Earth is faced with a real-life problem that has direct ties to climate change.

Amazon’s Sci-Fi Action Movie of 2021

When Forester returns home with the only copy of the toxin that can kill the White Spikes, he learns the creatures have been lurking under Siberian ice since 946 - when a huge volcanic eruption buried the creatures beneath a Russian glacier.

What was the reason for the creatures' delay in attacking? There is an explanation for that in Tomorrow War as well. An unfortunate Russian drilling expedition, coupled with global warming, allowed the creatures to escape and ravage the planet.

"They thawed it out," one character says. "They didn't wait it out."

It isn't exactly realistic to fight the Tomorrow War. It is unlikely that scientists are aware of bloodthirsty creatures lurking beneath the ice in Russia.

This movie does so well by drawing parallels to another terrifying, real-world scientific scenario with fatal consequences. Due to the climate crisis, the permafrost in Siberia is thawing, revealing deadly dangers as menacing as those in sci-fi films. With The Tomorrow War at the center of its latest episode of Reel Science, Inverse investigates what lies beneath frozen tundra and speaks with experts to find out what's beneath the ice.

the tomorrow war

What Lurks Under Permafrost?

Permafrost is a form of frozen ground that comprises rocks, soil, organic material preserved by plants and animals, and large chunks of ice. There are swaths of Arctic land in Russia, Alaska, and Canada that make up one quarter of the Northern Hemisphere. Usually, it remains frozen throughout the year, but climate change is changing that. The permafrost is not melting, as is commonly believed.

Rather than describing the permafrost as ice, it would be more accurate to describe it as thawing - similar to frozen meat sitting on your counter on a warm day - as global temperatures heat up. Nevertheless, Susan Natali, an Arctic ecologist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, says there's more to thawing than just ice and dirt.

Scientists have rarely found living organisms under the melting permafrost, but a little multicellular animal - the Arctic Rotifer - was found recently alive in the thawing Siberian permafrost 24,000 years old. "There is no chance of living mammals," Natali says, "but apparently bacteria and microscopic animals like rotifers can survive."

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There's little doubt that we won't find mutant creatures the size of the ones from The Tomorrow War under the ice, even if it's impossible to find living mammals. In reality, the thawing permafrost has uncovered the remains of wolves, wooly mammoths and countless others.

In addition to [wooly] mammoth tusks and bones, Natali was also in a group that discovered a Pleistocene wolf jaw, which she says was amazing. However, these animals aren't just archaeological artifacts - they may contain deadly poisons that could escape as the permafrost thaws.

Is Thawing Permafrost Dangerous?

Permafrost can even harbor live bacteria in the form of dead mammals. According to a 2020 Nature study, anthrax spores carried by dead animals can still transmit deadly diseases, according to authors Elisa Stella and Enrico Bertuzzo from the University of Venice.

According to Stella and Bertuzzo, Anthrax spores are released by dying or dead infected animals. One person died, along with more than 2,000 reindeer, following an anthrax outbreak in the Siberian Arctic in 2016. As permafrost thawed, anthrax spores may have been brought to the surface, leading to anthrax outbreaks. As global warming sends temperatures in Siberia soaring to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, "particularly warm years" are associated with greater anthrax outbreaks, according to the study.

"Climate change is already warming and thawing the permafrost in the Arctic."

Anthrax transmission is more likely to occur as the permafrost thaws due to global warming, explain Stella and Bertuzzo. Additionally, it increases the risk of other poisons leaking from beneath the permafrost. The permafrost can also release contaminants into rivers and streams, which can accumulate in aquatic organisms. Mercury can pose a threat to Arctic residents who rely on fishing and hunting for subsistence as it moves "up the food chain," Natali says. A powerful poison also pollutes our world urgently: greenhouse gas emissions. This poison lies beneath the permafrost. According to Natali, ancient organic matter in the permafrost can release carbon. There is nearly twice as much carbon in the permafrost as in the atmosphere as a whole.

"The biggest concern with thawing permafrost from a global perspective is the release of ancient carbon, which is currently frozen in permafrost," Natali says. Carbon dioxide and methane are produced as the permafrost thaws due to microbes breaking down the carbon. Approximately some part of this [carbon] is expected to be released into the atmosphere over the next couple decades and centuries, contributing to climate change.

Climate Change and the Future of Permafrost

There aren't many sci-fi options that are scientifically accurate, but The Tomorrow War is a decent option. When you also pay attention, you'll find the urgency of the climate crisis hiding beneath the action sequences -- a screen in Forester's class, for example, suggests polar ice caps are melting and polar bears are dying.

Amazon’s Sci-Fi Action Movie  Reveals an Urgent Global Crisis

We can apply the movie's lessons to our everyday lives. Due to the climate crisis, normally frozen permafrost is thawing alarmingly fast as temperatures rise. The Arctic is already warming and thawing due to climate change, Natali adds, adding that thawed permafrost is also collapsing suddenly as a result of climate change.

According to a 2019 Nature report, an abrupt permafrost thaw "could release between 60 billion and 100 billion tons of carbon" by the year 2300, increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the permafrost by 50 percent.

According to ecologist Merritt Turetsky, fires raging this summer in Siberia are contributing to permafrost thawing and greenhouse gas emissions. Some novel solutions have been proposed to curb permafrost thaw, including reindeer stomping on the top layers of the permafrost to prevent it from thawing (yes, seriously). Scientists suggest the permafrost thaw has already crossed the point of no return, while others urge leaders to take the threat of carbon emissions from the permafrost more seriously than ever.

If something lurking beneath the permafrost does threaten human extinction, it won't be the ancient mutant beasts from The Tomorrow War. As we witness our climate crisis rapidly escalating, we've developed a deep familiarity with greenhouse gases as a threat.

The Tomorrow War is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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