NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE
| VOL 6 | SEPTEMBER 2016 |
Climate change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, is an
emerging genre but climate change is not yet
a mainstream topic in popular culture.
had to name a film which addresses climate
change, you might think of The Day After
Tomorrow. The film depicts the world being
plunged into a new ice age as meltwater
caused by global warming halts the North
Atlantic ocean circulation, preventing the
transport of warm surface waters to higher
latitudes. While there is a scientific basis for
these events to occur, the short timescales
portrayed in the media often require some
artistic licence. Another example might
be Waterworld, where melting of the polar
regions results in global flooding and the
loss of almost all land on the planet — an
extreme example of sea level rise.
While there are documentaries addressing
these issues — such as Chasing Ice, with timedelay
footage of glaciers in flux, and Al Gore’s
An Inconvenient Truth — these may be less
engaging to the general population than a
Hollywood blockbuster. Recent news could
be straight from a movie script — thawing
permafrost has released a deadly infection.
This is the news from Siberia, where an
unusually warm summer in a western region
has caused the permafrost to thaw, releasing
anthrax spores. Anthrax was last seen in the
region 75 years ago, but it can survive being
frozen: the cause of the current outbreak is
thought to be a defrosted reindeer carcass
or a local burial ground, as shallow burials
are traditional in the region. The outbreak
has resulted in the confirmed death of a
12-year-old boy, 115 hospitalizations and
over 2,300 reindeer deaths1
. The reindeer
remains are being incinerated to destroy
the pathogen and prevent further spread.
This is unlikely to be an isolated incident
as permafrost is warming globally, with
increases in northern Russia of 1–2 °C over
the past 30 to 35 years (with the coldest sites
experiencing increases of 0.4–0.6 °C per
decade at 10 metre depth2
). Thawing of these
and other frozen regions could also unearth
viruses and other pathogens. One virus was
recovered, still infectious, from 30,000 year
, hinting at the diversity that may be
frozen away. Another dramatic possibility
is the return of smallpox4
, with remnants
of the virus discovered on an unearthed
. It can survive being frozen, but
no live virus has yet been found in historical
victims. Although the risk to human health
is likely to be small from such discoveries
and disinterments, little artistic licence
would be needed to create a disaster tale,
as demonstrated in the TV series Fortitude
where a thawing mammoth leads to death
and upheaval in a remote Arctic settlement.
In another example of what could emerge
from the melting ice, a study has been
published regarding an abandoned cold
war base beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet6
Camp Century was a US military base built
within the ice sheet in northwest Greenland
that was abandoned in 1967. Little effort was
made to decommission and remove waste
when it was deserted as its location within
the ice sheet was expected to lock it away
for eternity. Now, using business-as-usual
scenarios, the authors predict that the base
may be uncovered in the next 75 years,
leading to remobilization of liquid waste left
behind and potential political ramifications
of dealing with these issues.
While cli-fi might be playing catch up
with other genres, climate change does
have some high-profile advocates from
popular culture. Leonardo DiCaprio, in his
acceptance speech for his first Oscar, spoke
of climate change and his direct experience
of it while filming The Revenant — the role
that lead to his best actor award. While he
has spoken on environment issues in the
past, this was an event with global coverage
garnering a broader reach. Recent research7
looks at the impact of DiCaprio’s acceptance
speech on the media coverage, tweets and
Google searches of ‘climate change’ or
‘global warming’. While traditional media
studied showed little change, there were
over 250,000 related tweets that day — a
636% increase on expectations. Furthermore,
web searches increased 261%, and remained
elevated for 4 days. This level of engagement
was around four times greater than that seen
in the daily averages during the Conference
of the Parties Paris meeting in late 2015, or
on Earth Day in April 2015.
On an even bigger stage, climate change
was featured in the opening ceremony of the
Rio Olympics — with an estimated audience
of three billion people. The presentation
highlighted the links between global
atmospheric carbon dioxide and increasing
planetary temperature, presented using
the recent viral spiral8
, and the subsequent
melting of polar regions and associated
The effect of having such high profile
commentary on the issue is positive, as it
delivers the message to an audience that may
not engage with climate change otherwise.
Such engagement is vital: increased awareness
is essential if societal change is to occur.
1. Tundra ablaze as reindeer carcasses infected with deadly anthrax
are incinerated. The Siberian Times (05 August 2016).
2. Romanovsky, V. E. et al. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc. 97 (State of the
Climate in 2015 special supplement), S149–S152 (2016);
3. Yong, E. Nature http://doi.org/bnt2 (2014).
4. Phillips, K. E. Climate threat: thawing tundra releases infected
corpses. Livescience (26 March 2008).
5. Reardon, S. Nature http://doi.org/bnt4 (2014).
6. Colgan, W. et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. http://doi.org/bnt5 (2016).
7. Leas, E. C. et al. PLoS ONE e0159885 (2016).
8. Hope, M. Nature Clim. Change 6, 657 (2016).
Popular culture reflects both the interests of and the issues affecting the general public. As concerns
regarding climate change and its impacts grow, is it permeating into popular culture and reaching that
Global reach and engagement
JEFF MENDELSON / EYEEM / EYEEM / GETTY
© 2 0 1 6 M a c mil l a n P u bli s h e r s Li mi t e d, p a rt o f S p ri n g e r N a t u r e. Al l ri g h t s r e s e r v e d.
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