In Amazon’s latest action-packed flick, The Tomorrow War, science teacher, Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) is fighting a mission through time to save his family from the White Spikes — vicious alien monsters that can rip humans from limb to limb.
But in order to destroy the beasts from the future, Forester will have to first figure out where they came from. The answer reveals a real-life problem facing Earth with direct connections to climate change.
(Warning: Major spoilers ahead for The Tomorrow War).
After traveling to an apocalyptic future to fight the White Spikes and returning home with the only copy of a toxin capable of killing them, Forester discovers aliens have been lurking deep underneath Siberian ice since 946 A.D.— when a massive volcanic eruption scattered ash around the globe, burying the beasts underneath a Russian glacier.
Why did the creatures wait so long to attack? Tomorrow War has an explanation for that too. Thawing of the permafrost due to global warming, along with an unfortunate Russian drilling expedition, gave the creatures an opportunity to escape and ravage the planet.
“They didn’t wait it out,” one character says.“They thawed it out.”
Strictly speaking: The Tomorrow War isn’t exactly realistic. Few scientists, if any, believe that bloodthirsty creatures are lurking underneath the Russian ice, waiting to attack humans.
But what the movie does so effectively is draw comparisons to another frightening, real-world scientific scenario with deadly consequences. As Siberian permafrost thaws due to the climate crisis, the previously frozen ground reveals deadly dangers that are nearly as menacing as sci-fi beasts.
In the latest edition of Reel Science, Inverse investigates the science behind The Tomorrow War and speaks with experts to answer all of your burning questions about what’s actually underneath frozen tundra.
What lurks under permafrost?
Permafrost is frozen ground that’s a mixture of rock, soil, organic material from the remains of plants and animals, and large ice chunks. It makes up about one-quarter of the ground in the Northern Hemisphere, including large swaths of Russia, Alaska, and Canada. It typically remains frozen year-round, but the climate crisis is changing that.
People often say that the permafrost is melting, but that’s a common misconception.
Since the permafrost is made of more than just ice, it would be more accurate to say that as global temperatures heat up due to the climate crisis, the permafrost thaws — much like frozen meat sitting on your counter on a hot day.
But Susan Natali, an Arctic ecologist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, tells Inverse that there’s more than just ice and dirt waiting to thaw out.
Living creatures have rarely been found under the thawing permafrost, though scientists did recently discover a 24,000-year-old Arctic rotifer — a small multicellular animal — alive under Siberian permafrost.
“There's not a chance of live mammals,” Natali says, “but apparently bacteria and microscopic animals, such as rotifers can survive.”
Even if it’s impossible to find living mammals under the ice, we probably won’t find complex mutant creatures like the ones slaying humans in The Tomorrow War.
“I've found many [wooly] mammoth tusks and bones, which was exciting, and I also was with a colleague who found a Pleistocene wolf jaw, which was pretty amazing,” Natali says.
But these animals aren’t just archaeological artifacts — they sometimes contain deadly poisons that can escape from the thawing permafrost.
Is thawing permafrost dangerous?
Mammals lurking under the permafrost may be dead, but they can still carry live bacteria. These dead animals can still transmit deadly diseases through anthrax spores that they carry, according to a 2020 Nature study co-authored by Elisa Stella and Enrico Bertuzzo from the University of Venice.
“Anthrax spores are released by the dying or dead infected animals,” Stella and Bertuzzo tell Inverse. A 2016 anthrax outbreak in the Siberian Arctic killed one person — and sickened many others — along with more than 2,000 reindeer, according to the study.
Anthrax likely emerged as the result of thawing permafrost, which brought anthrax spores to the surface. According to the study, “particularly warm years” are associated with greater anthrax outbreaks — an alarming fact as global warming sends temperatures in Siberia soaring to 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Climate change is already warming and thawing permafrost across the Arctic.”
As the permafrost thaws due to global warming, the likelihood of anthrax transmission increases, explains Stella and Bertuzzo. It also increases the risk of other poisons releasing from beneath the permafrost.
Other contaminants, such as mercury, can escape from the permafrost into rivers and streams, accumulating in aquatic organisms. As the mercury moves “up the food chain” it can “pose a threat to Arctic residents, who rely heavily on fishing and hunting for subsistence,” Natali says.
But perhaps the most deadly poison underneath the permafrost is also the one that’s most urgently polluting our planet: greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon from ancient organic matter in the permafrost can escape due to the thaw; there is nearly twice as much carbon in the permafrost as in the entire Earth’s atmosphere, according to Natali.
“The biggest concern of thawing permafrost from a global perspective is the release of ancient carbon, which is currently frozen in permafrost,” Natali says. As the permafrost thaws, microbes break down the carbon into the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.
Natali adds, “some portion of this [carbon] will be released into the atmosphere in the coming years, decades, and centuries, which will exacerbate climate warming.”
Climate change and the future of permafrost
When it comes to scientifically accurate sci-fi, The Tomorrow War isn’t the cream of the crop.
But pay close attention, you’ll see the scientific urgency lurking beneath the over-the-top fight sequences — a screen in the back of Forester’s classroom, for example, suggests the climate crisis is melting polar ice caps and killing polar bears.
The movie’s lessons can be applied to our real-life situation. As temperatures rise due to the climate crisis, normally frozen permafrost is indeed thawing — and alarmingly quick.
“Climate change is already warming and thawing permafrost across the Arctic,” Natali says, adding that climate change is also causing the thawed permafrost to abruptly collapse.
According to a 2019 Nature report, abrupt permafrost thaw “could release between 60 billion and 100 billion tons of carbon” by the year 2300, increasing the overall rate of greenhouse gas emissions from the permafrost by 50 percent.
Moreover, fires raging in Siberia this summer, linked to the climate crisis, also increase the likelihood of permafrost thaw and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions, according to a tweet by ecologist Merritt Turetsky.
Novel solutions have been proposed to curb permafrost thaw, such as reindeer stomping the top layers of the permafrost to keep it from thawing (yes, really). Some scientists suggest the permafrost thaw is past the point of no return, while others urge global leaders to take the threat of carbon emissions from the permafrost more seriously than ever before.
Ultimately, if something underneath the permafrost does pose an extinction threat to humans, it’s not going to be the ancient mutant beasts from The Tomorrow War.
Instead, it’s a threat we’ve become intimately familiar with during our rapidly escalating climate crisis: greenhouse gases.
The Tomorrow War is streaming now on Amazon Prime.