Climate Change in High Definition

Entertainment & Media / by Anthony Kaufman /

Earth the movie opens today in the US, 7 years since the Planet Earth franchise first started production. Has the footage become a chronicle of an already vanished world?

Credit:INTTraveler

Alastair Fothergill, the producer of the spellbinding Planet Earth series, has been working on nature documentaries for decades. Long enough for him to watch climate change transform the natural world he aims to capture, long enough for him to notice that the weather at his shooting locations is not as reliable as it once was. He is now filming chimpanzees in the rainforests of West Africa for a new documentary, where the rainy season didn’t come when the crew expected. “That does seem to be a widespread global phenomenon,” he says. “When is the rain coming? When is the dry season coming? When is the flood coming? Everything is a little unpredictable now.”

Planet Earth first premiered on the BBC in 2006 and had screened in 130 countries a year later, but its force as a cultural juggernaut isn’t waning. On Earth Day, April 22, Disney Nature is releasing Earth, a companion feature film to the TV series, in theaters in the United States. The film, which largely uses recut material from the series, traces the lives of three endangered and vulnerable species — polar bears, African elephants, and humpback whales — over the course of four seasons. Climate change is happening so quickly that it is not only affecting shots and shooting locations of nature films currently in production, it is also transforming Planet Earth and its sister film into a chronicle of a swiftly vanishing world.

Earth opens with a majestic shot of the sun creeping over the gorgeously alien Arctic landscape, a place ravaged by climate change in recent years. This month, NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that sea-ice cover at the poles has decreased dramatically in the past two years. “It’s really dropped off the cliff,” says NSIDC research scientist Walt Meier. From 2007 to 2008, ice coverage during summer months was 30 percent below average, Meier says, and between 2005 and 2007, there was a 40 percent drop in the thicker so-called “multiyear” ice. Ice melt is also increasing rapidly at the other end of the Earth, in Antarctica, where, according to a report published in Science just last month, seasonal sea ice in 2004 came approximately 54 days later in the fall and departed roughly 31 days earlier in the spring compared with 30 years ago, and winter temperatures warmed up 4.8 times higher than the global average at the tip of the Antarctic peninsula.

The effects of climate change on Planet Earth’s animal stars are not as clear-cut. Conservation efforts are helping the humpback whale, for example. Although the whales swim 4,000 miles to Antarctica each year to feed on krill, whose populations are declining due to climate change, the number of humpbacks are increasing due to crackdowns against illegal hunting. In certain areas, African elephant populations have also increased in recent years thanks to conservation efforts. Adélie penguins — which get more screen time in the television series than the movie — are not faring as well, as they need cold temperatures and ice to survive.

In a devastating scene in Earth, a male polar bear, driven by hunger, is seen swimming across expanses of open water and then futilely trying to attack walruses. He eventually dies of hunger and injuries from the tussle. The plight of the polar bear is well known — it’s become an endangered species since filming commenced — but Planet Earth was ahead of the curve in showing some of the desperate situations in which these animals are finding themselves. In 2005 the US Minerals Management Service confirmed that polar bears were drowning offshore in Northern Alaska as a result of the loss of ice-shelf coverage. And last March the journal Arctic reported instances of cannibalism, starvation, and predatory behavior among adult polar bears. What seemed like high drama perfect for television has become all too common in the real world.

For one major sequence in Planet Earth, the crew followed African elephants waiting for floodwaters to return to Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta. “We had the whole shoot set up for it,” Fothergill says. “And then the flood really never came to the extent that we had predicted it.” This potential effect of climate change goes undetected in the scene, as the weary, thirsty elephants eventually bask in an unimaginable bounty of water. Fothergill would explain this by saying that Planet Earth’s principle aim is “to celebrate the beauty of the planet,” not an attempt to catalogue vulnerable species or places on the verge of demise. In this way, it’s a much more subtle ecological clarion call. “Despite all the damage that we’ve done and are doing, the planet remains an amazing place. All of the animals in all the places that are shown in the movie are still there,” he says. “Whether they’ll be there in another 25 years is another matter.”

Originally published April 22, 2009

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