By Justine Calma / @justcalma
There are kernels of real science in Apple’s new star-studded climate change drama Extrapolations. In the first episode alone, we see raging fires, water shortages, and vanishing Arctic ice. These threats are real.
The show also makes some stuff up for the sake of telling a story. (Spoiler alert!) Walruses, for one, face much more danger from humans than we do from them. But considering their status as a “vulnerable” species due in part to oil and gas drilling and shrinking sea ice, a little walrus rage in the first episode is probably warranted. There’s also no such thing as “summer heart,” a medical condition we see in the second episode. But heat does put extra strain on the heart, and it’s already the top weather-related killer in the US.
The Verge put together this guide to some of the biggest science themes in the first three episodes of Extrapolations, all of which start streaming today. We break down how the show compares to the real-life climate crisis at our doorsteps and whether some of the solutions it poses could actually work.
We see raging fires, water shortages, and vanishing Arctic ice — these threats are real
The season opens in 2037, with the world facing warming close to 2 degrees Celsius above temperatures during the preindustrial age. That might not sound like a big change, but it comes with dramatic consequences for life on Earth. With that much warming, 99 percent of coral reefs are expected to vanish, for instance. Things get dire for people, too, with more extreme weather, severe fire seasons, and rising sea levels. At 2 degrees of warming, more than 70 percent of the world’s coastlines are gobbled up by sea level rise of more than 0.66 feet (0.2 meters). The strongest tropical cyclones, Category 4 and 5 storms, become more common. The area scorched by wildfires each summer in the Mediterranean grows by 62 percent. And 388 million people around the world face water scarcity.
The landmark climate agreement struck in Paris does commit countries around the world to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. The world has already heated up by a little over 1 degree Celsius. And unfortunately, under current policies, the world is still on track to reach close to 3 degrees Celsius by 2100.
In the show, a billionaire shares patents to his desalination technology with drought-choked countries, seemingly to get them to agree to weaker climate goals.
There’s not much detail in the first episode about what makes his “state-of-the-art” desalination technology so special. Modern desalination techniques have been around for decades, which some parts of the world — particularly in the Middle East and Northern Africa — already rely on heavily. Israel, where much of the first episode takes place, desalinates around 70 percent of its municipal water supply.
But desalination is no silver bullet. To start, it’s expensive because it’s very energy-intensive. There are two main methods used: blasting the water with heat to evaporate it and then recondense it sans salt; or using immense pressure to push water through a reverse osmosis membrane to filter out the salt.
Desalination is no silver bullet
Not only do both of those processes require a lot of energy but also most desalination plants still run on fossil fuels. So making potable water this way, with today’s dirty energy system, also produces greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Even if renewable energy replaces fossil fuels, desalination has another pollution problem to solve in the form of leftover brine that becomes waste.
This episode follows Sienna Miller as a researcher for a company that archives the genes of species on the brink of extinction. The goal is to one day “bring these creatures back.” It’s de-extinction, one of the most controversial ideas within conservation.
You might have heard about a biotech company attempting to bring a dodo-like creature and woolly mammoth-elephant mashup to life, for instance. These initiatives are big on hype and short on results. Even if they are successful, they won’t actually resurrect the same animals that went extinct. The technology they’re working with would create hybrids using the creatures’ distant relatives. Picture a furry elephant with a high-domed head.
Scientists The Verge has spoken with argue that there simply needs to be a lot more focus on preventing species from going extinct in the first place. Today, around a million animal and plant species face extinction, more than at any other time during human history.
My favorite character of the season is a humpback whale voiced by Meryl Streep. It communicates with Miller’s character through some kind of animal interpretation technology. This clearly falls within the realm of science fiction.
Scientists are studying whale songs to see if they can decode them
But scientists are studying whale songs to see if they can decode them. NPR’s podcast Invisibilia has a neat episode about an initiative using artificial intelligence to try to understand non-human communication. Other scientists are studying whether nonhuman animals can even communicate through something like language. Some of this research was inspired by TikTok sensation Bunny the dog, who seemingly presses buttons to ask for scritches.
This episode is set in a soggy Miami in 2047, where rising sea levels threaten to wipe out a local synagogue. In reality, Miami is facing two or more feet of sea level rise by 2060 and around six feet by 2100. That’s an existential problem for Miami-Dade County. It only sits about six feet above the current sea level, on average, and more than 877,000 people live below that elevation.
A main plot thread in this episode follows a synagogue applying for “preservation” by the state of Florida, which would involve determining how and where to build protective structures like seawalls. While seawalls might provide some shelter to communities at the greatest risk of flooding, they are only built to withstand so much abuse and can ultimately fail. The United Nations panel of climate experts recently warned that seawalls can promote a false sense of security and can potentially put more people in danger if populations continue to grow along low-lying coasts.
Seawalls are also controversial because they typically only protect a chosen set of properties or communities. As we see in the episode, what’s deemed worthy of protection is fraught with ethical questions — and maybe a healthy share of injustice and corruption as well. Moreover, shielding one part of a coastline can actually increase land loss for its neighbors. Seawalls deflect wave energy, which just makes it someone else’s problem.
What we can take away from these first few episodes is that humanity won’t be able to simply engineer its way out of the disasters climate change brings — not with seawalls, de-extinction, or desalination. But we can work to lessen the greenhouse gas pollution that’s causing this mess and avoid the worst-case scenarios we see play out in the show.
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The real (and sometimes controversial) science behind Apple’s Extrapolations
By Justine Calma / @justcalma