Extrapolations: The real science behind Apple’s climate drama

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There are nuclei 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 disappearing polar ice. These threats are real.

The show also makes up some stuff to tell a story. (Spoiler alert!) Walruses, for example, are much more in danger from humans than we are from them. But given their status as a “vulnerable” species, due in part to oil and gas drilling and shrinking sea ice, a bit of 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 puts extra strain on the heart, and it’s already the biggest weather-related killer in the US.

The edge compiled 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 climate crisis on our doorstep and whether some of the solutions it offers could actually work.

We see raging fires, water shortages and disappearing polar ice – these threats are real

Episode 1:

How much is the planet warming?

The season will begin in 2037 and the world will face a warming of nearly 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial era temperatures. That may not sound like a big change, but it has dramatic consequences for life on Earth. With so much warming, for example, 99 percent of coral reefs are expected to disappear. Things are getting 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 will be swallowed up by a sea level rise of more than 0.66 feet (0.2 meters). The strongest tropical cyclones, Category 4 and 5 storms, are more frequent. The area scorched each summer by wildfires in the Mediterranean is growing by 62 percent. And 388 million people around the world are facing water scarcity.

The historic Paris climate agreement obliges countries around the world to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. The world has already warmed just over 1 degree Celsius. And unfortunately, under current policies, the world is still on track to reach nearly 3 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Can desalination save us from drought?

In the show, a billionaire shares patents on his desalination technology with drought-stricken countries, seemingly to get them to agree to weaker climate targets.

There aren’t many details in the first episode about what makes its “state-of-the-art” desalination technology so special. Modern desalination techniques have been around for decades and some parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, already rely heavily on them. Israel, where much of the first episode takes place, is desalinating about 70 percent of its municipal water supply.

But desalination is not a panacea. For starters, it is expensive because it is very energy intensive. There are two main methods used: blowing the water with heat to vaporize it and then condensing it again without salt; or using enormous pressure to push water through a reverse osmosis membrane to filter out the salt.

Desalination is not a panacea

Not only do both processes cost a lot of energy, most desalination plants still run on fossil fuels. So making drinking water in this way, with the current polluted energy system, also creates greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Even as renewable energy replaces fossil fuels, desalination has another pollution problem to solve in the form of leftover brine becoming waste.

Episode 2:

Climate change is pushing vulnerable species to the brink. Can we make them extinct?

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 “bring these creatures back” one day. It’s de-extinction, one of the most controversial ideas in conservation.

You may have heard of a biotech company trying to bring to life a dodo-like creature and a mixture of a woolly mammoth and an elephant. These initiatives have a lot of hype and little result. Even if successful, they won’t revive the same animals that went extinct. The technology they work with would create hybrids using the creatures’ distant relatives. Imagine a hairy elephant with a high domed head.

Scientists The edge has spoken arguing that there simply needs to be a lot more focus on preventing species from going extinct in the first place. Today, about one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, more than at any other time in human history.

Can humans talk to other animals?

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 is clearly within the realm of science fiction.

Scientists study whale songs to see if they can decipher them

But scientists are studying whale songs to see if they can decipher them. NPR podcast Invisible has a fun episode about an initiative that uses artificial intelligence to try and understand non-human communication. Other scientists are exploring whether non-human animals can even communicate through something like language. Some of this research is inspired by TikTok sensation Bunny the dog, who seemingly pushes buttons to ask for scritches.

Episode 3:

How much of Miami will be flooded in the future?

This episode is set in a swampy Miami in 2047, where rising sea levels threaten to wipe out a local synagogue. In fact, Miami faces sea level rise of two feet or more by 2060 and about six feet by 2100. That’s an existential problem for Miami-Dade County. It averages only about six feet above current sea level, and more than 877,000 people live below that elevation.

Matthew Rhys, Heather Graham, Alexander Sokovikov and Noel Arthur Extrapolations.
Image: Apple

Are seawalls the answer to sea level rise?

A main story thread in this episode follows a synagogue requesting “preservation” by the state of Florida, which involves determining how and where to build protective structures such as seawalls. While seawalls can provide some shelter for communities most at risk of flooding, they are only built to withstand so much abuse and can eventually fail. The United Nations panel of climate experts recently warned that seawalls could promote a false sense of security and potentially put more people at risk 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 deserves protection is fraught with ethical questions – and perhaps a healthy share of injustice and corruption as well. In addition, sealing off part of a coastline can actually increase land loss to its neighbours. Seawalls deflect wave energy, making it just someone else’s problem.

What we can gather from these first few episodes is that humanity will not be able to simply cut its way out of the disasters brought about by climate change – not with seawalls, de-extinction or desalination. But we can work to reduce the greenhouse gas pollution that causes this mess and avoid the worst case scenarios we see playing out on the show.

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