Cli-Fi: Happy Methane Apocalypse!

Syfy is welcoming the War On Terra with a holiday disaster film about the silent but deadly methane apocalypse that could kill us all. I probed the stinky nether regions of climate-fiction — or cli-fi for jargon lovers — for Wired.

Are you prepared for a holiday-friendly methane apocalypse? Syfy’s new Ice Quake trains its B-movie bombast on a real-world problem that’s got some climate scientists increasingly worried.

The cli-fi flick finds Bones‘ Brendan Fehr and Alias‘ Victor Garber struggling to survive after the Alaskan permafrost thaws, unleashing subterranean rivers of volatile liquid methane and planet-killing earthquakes on Christmas Eve.

Sharktopus it is not. Ice Quake, which premieres Saturday, may be hyper-real popcorn fare, but its environmental fears are more real than reality television, according to Syfy executive vice president of programming Thomas Vitale. “It’s not a matter of exploiting fear,” he told in an e-mail interview. “It’s more a matter of raising awareness of a real issue, and then building an exciting fictional story around it.”

Scientists are indeed fretting about what’s hiding beneath the melting permafrost, and how crappy things might get if buried methane hydrates — also known as “burps of death” or “fart apocalypse” — escape.

Geoengineering is an inevitably trending topic at the geopolitical climate crisis summit in Cancun, Mexico, concluding Dec. 10. That type of topical awareness could make Ice Quake the smartest holiday special since A Colbert Christmas.

“After reading a few articles on the hidden threat of methane hydrates, we came across some great video of people in the Arctic stabbing holes in the ice and lighting the escaping methane on fire,” said Neil Elman, vice president of Cinetel Films, which produced Ice Quake. “At first we thought it was a hoax; sadly it’s not. The melting ice caps are the fuse. The trapped methane released into the atmosphere is the bomb.”

Whether a holiday-themed disaster film with a mostly happy ending can stoke interest in the esoteric environmental issue remains to be seen. It seems especially unlikely now that Syfy is harder to take seriously than in the past, what with all the ghost hunters, schlock monsters, bubble-pop stars and pro wrestlers taking over a cable channel once known for bringing The Prisoner back to prime time.

But one thing is for sure: Elman is worried out of his wits.

“The scientific community keeps revising its estimates of global warming’s overall effect,” he said. “Rain forests are drying up, polar caps are disappearing, oceans are heating, reefs are bleaching, permafrost that hides methane hydrates is thawing and this year was one of the hottest on record. It’s all tied together: We may not only be running out of time, we may have run out of time and don’t know it yet.”

Heroes still manage to save the day in cli-fi films like apocalypse kingpin Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow and Syfy’s Ice Quake – often by implementing usually impossible scientific solutions. But in reality, the Cancun talks are struggling to make waves.

“We know we will not get everything done, but we must get something done,” said European Union climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard, according to Reuters. Great.

Ice Quake’s ability to stimulate conversation along the lines of An Inconvenient Truth, or even the sci-fi documentary The Age of Stupid, remains a known unknown. (Or is that an unknown unknown?) But it’s still an excellent holiday time-waster.

“These serious issues obviously provide a lot of material for movies, and in turn, the movies can raise awareness of these issues,” said Syfy’s Vitale. “That said, the movies need first and foremost to work as entertainment for our Saturday audience.”

This article appeared at WIRED

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