With 2021 not exactly getting off to the best start, with the UK going back into a National Lockdown yet again, the perfect antidote is surely a new David Attenborough series.
‘A Perfect Planet’ is now available to binge on BBC iPlayer, yes, all 5 episodes are available, so I am easing myself into this new year by watching one a day to keep the joy coming day after day. It seems to be everything that you have come to expect from a David Attenborough documentary, it is stunning, informative, interesting, exciting and a call to action to look after the planet we call home before it is too late.
Below I am going to share my thoughts on each episode and dive into the themes to fully understand the way that our planetary systems work in perfect harmony to allow us to thrive and survive. It looks like it will cover the various systems on this planet that create the life support system that all species need to survive, including energy from the sun, weather systems transporting water around the globe, oceans circulating essential nutrients and how these all work together to create the perfect planet for life.
I learnt so much from this series, and from David Attenborough every damn day (!), so here is what I have learnt episode by episode. What did you learn?
Episode 1 – Volcano
This first episode dives into so much more than just volcanos, it touches of the various species that still rely on these dangerous habitats today and also how we all owe our existence to these fiery mounds. So, let’s start off by looking at volcanos and learning a little more about them.
There are over 1,500 active volcanos on Earth today, this is far more than I thought there were! They can obviously impose huge risk to local communities if they erupt, but they are also responsible for the world that we see today. They are uncontrollable but vital to life on this planet.
Put simply, a volcano is essentially an opening in the Earth’s crust which exposes magma (molten rock), hot ash and various gases to escape from inside the planet to the surrounding atmosphere. Eruptions of volcanos can be violent, caused by tectonic plate activity, although some are less violent and simply cause hot spots on the Earth’s surface and only slow lava flows erupt from their openings. These can be seen clearly in this episode of ‘A Perfect Planet’ where some species use these hot spots for their survival in harsh climates.
Some stats from this episode really help to drive home how important volcanos have been in shaping our world. A whopping 80% of the Earth’s surface was created by magma flows that have cooled, hardened and create land. Globally 5% of land is classed as volcanic islands, such as the Galapagos and Canary Islands, yet they are home to huge biodiversity – an estimated 20% of all species call volcanic islands home. Some of the notable, and charismatic, species from this first episode include:
- Flamingos that use islands in the middle of a toxic, volcanic lake as a breeding ground away from predators.
- Iguanas using volcanic heat within a crater to incubate their eggs.
- Vampire Finches who have found an intriguing way to survive on a small, rocky, volcanic island which provides little food.
- Tortoises which live on volcanic islands which are threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change.
- Wildebeest and the accompanying abundance of predators on the grass lands of the Serengeti.
- River Otters taking advantage of the heat from local geysers which mean they can successfully fish all year round, even in the depths of winter when the rivers would otherwise be frozen.
When a volcano erupts, it is spewing out minerals that have come from the Earth’s molten core. A single ash cloud can carry up to billions of tonnes of minerals – meaning that the land around volcanos is often the most fertile. However, this is not all they release into the atmosphere, volcanos also release carbon dioxide. (Now, this is where it gets super interesting and where we can bring it back to how we can protect this beautiful, complex planet.) The first carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere was from volcanic eruptions, this meant that a natural greenhouse effect could start taking place on the planet. This warming of the globe meant that the atmosphere was able to support life, and this is how evolution began all those years ago.
Is that not incredible!? The beginnings of life on earth is something I am fascinated by, so I may well dive into this at another point. Nerd’s unite!
Yes, the greenhouse effect is a natural process. This is not to be confused with the anthropogenic greenhouse effect which is the driving cause of the current climate crisis. This is the unnatural amplification of this natural process which is causing the planet to get too hot and is threatening the survival of life on Earth. Volcanic eruptions and their contribution to the natural carbon cycle is all a part of the relationship between planetary systems that work in harmony to create a hospitable environment for us to live in here on Earth. It is why, for all we know, Earth is the only planet which is able to successfully support intelligent life. This level of carbon dioxide is not the issue. The issue is that, as a species, we are releasing 100 times more carbon into the atmosphere than all the world’s volcanos combined! 100 times!!! That is wholly unacceptable, and for us to believe that this could carry on, without significant consequence, forever really shows how woefully ignorant we are about this planet.
That is why we find ourselves in the midst of climate chaos. Yes – you will keep hearing about climate chaos until we actually pull our finger out and do something about it!!!
However, David Attenborough wouldn’t leave us all feeling like there was no hope for a future. Volcanos can once again save the day and help us to survive for a while longer on this planet. They could do this through the use of volcanic heat to replace fossil fuels. My mind was blown. There are so many renewable energy options out there, but I have not heard of this option before. It seems to me that we are not only running out of time to make change, but also running out of reasons as to why we shouldn’t embrace change. It’s time that we took a stand against big business and easily-influenced politicians and demand that enough is enough – there are viable alternatives to fossil fuels that, at the very least, have got to be worth a try.
I don’t know about you, but I am super excited for episode 2 of this new series. It is the dose of real life, hope and potential action that we needed at the start of 2021.
Episode 2 – The Sun
Well, the sun… that is a pretty large topic to tackle but they do it in episode 2 of ‘A Perfect Planet’. This episode is just as enjoyable as the first and was the perfect way to brighten up another gloomy evening in lockdown. Obviously, this subject gave us lots of food for thought, so, I will keep with the format of my blog (see above) of the first episode and start off by delving into the topic of the sun and then expand to the creatures and information that I learnt from the episode.
Here we go!
The sun is essentially a giant nuclear reactor. It is 93 million miles away from our planet and the rays that it produces take 8 whole minutes to reach us. It has been this way for the past 3 billion years! Now, full disclosure, I have read up about the sun online since watching this episode and the science is a little bit above me – but I will do my best!
The sun formed when a cloud made of dust and gas, known as a nebula, collapsed in on itself. This formed a disc shape, with the sun at its centre – this is our solar system. The sun is a sphere which is filled with gas and electrically charged particles called plasma. It burns at a whopping 5,500 degrees (Celsius) on the surface, increasing to 15.5 million degrees at the core!! HOT STUFF! Energy is created from this heat by the process of nuclear fusion which converts hydrogen to helium. Particles of light, called photons, then carry this energy from the suns core to the surface and out across space, with much reaching the Earth.
Very science-y, but if you read it slowly like I did then you should grasp the basics!
Overall, the Earth receives 4,380 hours of sunlight each year. However, it depends where you are on the planet for when you see these hours. Let me explain that further. If you spend 1 year on the equator and 1 year in the arctic, you will see the same number of daylight hours. However, during your year at the equator you will get even days all consisting of roughly the same amount of daylight, whereas in the arctic, you would spend approximately 6 months of near constant daylight and approximately 6 months of near constant night.
Sunlight is a vital resource for life on this planet. If there is one thing that has stayed with us from our school days science lessons it is the natural process of photosynthesis – am I right?! Photosynthesis is the chemical reaction that takes place in plants which allows them to produce the nutrients they need to survive. Photosynthesis takes place in the leaves of the plant, in the cells which contain chlorophyll – the stuff that makes them green. Essentially, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air around them, suck up water from the ground and take in light from the sun and create glucose to help them grow, and oxygen as a waste product that they expel into the atmosphere. I could go into more detail, but I think you probably get the gist. Besides, you can always refer to the dusty old textbook that is still knocking about in your bedroom at your parents’ house!
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the amazing creatures that are featured in the second episode. Just when you think you have seen all the weird and wonderful things that David Attenborough can throw at us – they find ever more interesting species to feature.
This episode follows:
- Fig Wasps – They help the fig trees to pollinate and their fruits ripen, however their behaviour is a little intriguing and a bit sci-fi, to be honest.
- Musk Ox weather the harsh, sunless, arctic winters huddled in their herd.
- Wood frogs who have the ability to freeze solid through winter and then thaw out when the weather starts to warm again in spring. Amazing!
- A vast tangle of male snakes who are fighting for the affections of a suitable female.
- Snow Geese and Arctic Foxes both trying to survive the cold and feed their young over winter.
- Saharan Silver Ants, who have heat defying, reflective adaptations.
- Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys who are fighting for the dwindling food supply as autumn turns to winter.
- Migratory birds who intelligently follow the tilt of the Earth’s axis to follow the suns warmth around the globe, living in eternal summer sunshine.
All of these brilliant, fascinating and charismatic species are at risk by the usual suspects of issues that our planet is facing. The climate crisis that we are currently facing is threatening life as we know it all over the planet. The heating of the planet is rapidly increasing, beyond our control, and the effects of this is causing widespread devastation. Global desertification is threatening our ability to support ourselves, with the Sahara Desert having grown in size the equivalent of twice the size of the whole of France in the past 100 years alone! The warming temperatures around the globe are also disrupting ancient migratory patterns, which many species rely on for a vital food source when nourishment is otherwise scarce. This increased unpredictability is putting many species at greater risk year on year.
However, and yes, thank God, David Attenborough does not leave us sobbing into our dressing gowns over the state of the world for too long. The sun, although rapidly warming our planet, could also provide an answer for the issues that we face. The sun provides more solar energy in an hour than the entirety of humanity uses in a single year.
Read that again.
Now tell me why we aren’t a civilisation that is based off solar power? Are we really so hung up on ‘this is the way it’s always been done’ that we can’t see the opportunity that we are missing here?
As always, this episode of ‘A Perfect Planet’ perfectly highlights the beauty of the planet that we live on, our horrendous treatment of it but also a way out of the darkness. Maybe, if we listen to David, we will see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is the sun.
I don’t know about you, but I am super excited for episode 3 of this new series. It is the dose of real life, hope and potential action that we needed at the start of 2021.
Episode 3 – Weather
With many of us struggling through the beginning of a new year which held so much promise, yet found us back in another UK national lockdown, I found the third episode of this new David Attenborough series a breath of fresh air. A huge array of species, some incredibly entertaining, help to take the edge off what has been a trying start to the new year. However, as ever, we endure! And if David Attenborough can’t keep us going then we really have no hope!!!
Episode 3 looks at weather and how its historic reliability has helped species across the globe to thrive, and how the increasing unpredictability – thanks to the climate crisis – is threatening the survival of many. Following the previous format of this post, I will be taking a look at the fundamentals of this episode’s theme, before diving into what this episode taught me and my own personal highlights. So, you might have to stay with me whilst I figure out the science, but I am hopeful that we will figure out the details!
Here. We. Go.
Although weather can be extremely changeable day to day, or even hour by hour – think sunshine all day and then rain the moment you light up the BBQ! – overall, annual weather patterns have been pretty stable for millennia. It is this stability that has enabled such a huge variety of life to develop on this planet. Our understanding of weather encompasses a number of different systems that are covered in this episode, from wind, to sun, rain or lack of it, to storms and even snow. This varied definition means that the reality of weather is that it impacts every single place on this planet and is either the saviour or reaper for many individuals, communities and, sometimes, entire species.
Weather, in many of its forms, is intwined with water distribution across the planet. Every second over 13 million tonnes of water evaporate from our oceans to form clouds in the sky. These clouds are then moved by wind, and the water distributed across the globe to varying degrees in different locations. This is all part of the water cycle, which is so vital to our survival on this planet.
So, the water cycle, yes, it is time to delve back into that part of your brain that holds snippets of information from GCSE Science. Let’s do a quick overview for those who were too busy texting or playing snake under the desk to remember much.
What you need to know about the Water Cycle:
- Water on Earth is constantly moving, it never truly disappears, it just moves to another part of the cycle.
- Water evaporates into the air from water sources such as the sea, rivers and lakes, as it is heated by the sun.
- Evaporated water is known as water vapour, this forms clouds.
- These clouds eventually burst which causes the water to return to earth as precipitation.
- The precipitation, such as rain or snow, then collects again in water sources and the cycle is ready to start again.
So, we can agree that the water cycle is pretty vital to the planet and all the species that call it home. Therefore, we can also deduce that if the balance of that cycle is upset in any way, that the implications of that can be huge. A very vivid example of this is Victoria Falls. Victoria Falls is a waterfall which is found on the Zambezi River on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. During peak season it sees 500 million litres of water flowing over its edge to the depths below. However, during dry season, they can run dry – which is incredible in itself, but not worrying. This predictability year on year means that the natural world has had a chance to adapt to the abundance versus depletion. However, in recent years it has been reported that the volume of water seen at Victoria Falls during the peak season has dropped by half of what it used to be. This unpredictability and upset of annual rhythms can cause havoc to many different species that frequent the area and depend on the falls for their survival.
Woo, so that got pretty science-y again, so, let’s take a breath for a moment and appreciate the array of creatures that the programme uses to illustrate its points so beautifully. They include:
- Straw-Coloured Fruit Bats arriving to forests to coincide with annual rains to take advantage of ripened fruit, which they spread the seeds of and help to regenerate the forests.
- Fire Ants building a living raft to survive annual floods and be carried to new feeding grounds where they can rebuild their colony.
- Giant River Turtles taking advantage of the annual exposure of sand banks for laying eggs in a safe, dry space.
- Rain Frogs who are able to live in the desert by burying in the sand during the day and searching for moisture at night, in the form of water-rich termites or moisture found in fog. These are my new favourite thing, such quirky creatures. You should watch this episode for these, if nothing else!
- Wild Camels in the Mongolian Gobi Desert, there are very few remaining of this species, so we are lucky they were able to film them. They can long-distant run across the desert in their herds towards moisture – which they can detect from up to 30 miles away, sometimes in the form of snow that has been blown in from Siberia which they can eat to rehydrate!
- Red Crabs of Christmas Island who emerge with the annual monsoons to travel from their burrows to the ocean to release their eggs, even though they are scared of the sea!
- Nile Crocodiles who are absolutely huge(!!) and take advantage of other species that visit the dwindling watering holes for a dry season feast.
- Bee-eater Birds and hippos who are being impacted by extreme dry seasons, driving hippos from rivers and causing the sand cliffs, where the birds once nested safely, to dry out so much that they collapse, taking hundreds of nests with them in a moment.
These creatures are all incredible, fascinating and at threat from the increasing unpredictability of the weather. Much of the behaviour of different species is built around the predictability of weather and seasons – examples of this include migrations, feeding opportunities, and exposure of new, nutrient-rich habitats. The climate changing, or seasonal timings being offset, even by just a few weeks, can have devastating effects on populations around the globe. These fluctuations were once rare but, thanks to the changing climate, are getting more and more frequent, pushing many species to the brink.
The takeaway from this episode is that our climate is no longer stable and that means countless species are threatened. However, this is not news. We are seeing more and more extreme weather events, including the wildfires that ravaged communities throughout 2020, but also in the form of droughts of increasing intensity and evermore frequent ferocious storms. We have seen these images on the news so often that they have started to lose their impact, our attention has shifted. However, what should get our attention back is that all the catastrophes that we have seen in recent years, all those effects of climate change that are impacting communities on a global scale, they are all from a global increase in temperature of just 1 degree (Celsius). If we continue to drop the ball and not do enough to stabilise the climate, then it is predicted that the global temperature will rise by another 5 degrees before the end of this century – what effects will we have to suffer through then?
The news is not good, the future certainly looks bleak, but education is the start of solution. We must watch and learn about these hard truths; the time has passed where we can afford to turn our heads away. The time has passed that we can plead ignorance because the issues are not yet on our doorstep. The time has passed when this issue was someone else’s problem. We are all at risk, we are all responsible and we must all work together for a better, brighter future lest we be the generation who let the planet fall.
I can’t wait to see what the rest of the season has in store for us. It really has been a week of escapism into the natural world, thanks to David Attenborough and his team – so, on the very, VERY slim chance that any of them are reading this; thank you! ‘A Perfect Planet’ is doing a sterling job of reminding us of the vast amount of beauty there is in this world, which is all too easily forgotten when we are bombarded with the seemingly endless deluge of bad news that we are shown on a daily basis. As we take on 2021, please ensure that you stay home, stay safe and stay up to date with Attenborough.
Episode 4 – Oceans
The fourth episode of ‘A Perfect Planet’ covers the life within and the importance of our oceans. This is a topic that is very close to my heart as I live by the sea and I currently work as a Junior Aquarist at my local aquarium.
So, let’s dive in… (pun, completely intended and I am not even sorry!)
There are three key points to take home about our oceans. They are:
- How currents support all ocean life
- The role of the Moon and the tides
- The impact of climate change and weather patterns
Let’s start with currents.
All life in our oceans depend on the continuous movement of water, known as currents, for their survival. All our oceans are interconnected, and water is always travelling around the globe distributing nutrients and supporting life. It takes an estimated 1,000 years for a drop of sea water to complete this global circuit. However, it is not the completion of this circuit that is vital here, it is the journey that the water takes and what it carries with it around the planet that needs our focus.
Phytoplankton may be tiny in size, but this is a single-celled plant which is vital to supporting the vast food webs that make up the natural world. They are also hugely important in our planets carbon cycle. They reportedly produce more oxygen than jungles and forests combined, whilst also combatting climate change through absorbing carbon – Amazing little guys! Despite their small stature, they attract life from all over the oceans to feed and grow. Oceanic food webs are complex, but to put it simply; phytoplankton are the foundation of life in our seas. They are what is known as a primary producer – being consumed by equally tiny zooplankton and also giant whales, along with everything in between. Phytoplankton attracts small fish, which attract bigger fish… etc, etc.
So really, we can thank the tiny Phytoplankton for all the incredible species that this episode of ‘A Perfect Planet’ brings us. Including:
- Marine Iguanas, who eat seaweed brought ashore by cormorants for nesting material, or if they are not able to steal their meal, they can dive for food in the ocean in short bursts to graze on marine greens!
- The Flamboyant Cuttlefish which walks around the seabed using its astonishing camouflage abilities to hide from predators and its dazzling colour changing skills to attract a mate.
Both these species are hugely impacted by the currents and the life they bring. The Galapagos Islands, home to many incredible species including the Marine Iguanas, are beautiful and wild thanks to the location of the islands being directly in the path of a current that brings an abundance of nutrients to the shores and surrounding seas. The seas around Indonesia, which are home to a third of all reef fish including the Flamboyant Cuttlefish, are home to such huge diversity thanks to the currents created by multiple oceans meeting in the area. The currents not only bring water, but they support the marine and coastal life that we know and love.
Now, let’s take a moment to look at the power of the Moon and the tides that it creates. The Moon has long been worshipped and studied, as it hangs above us in all its mystery and hope of adventure, but beside from the sacred nature and cultural histories surrounding the Moon, the science is also super interesting!
The basics that you need to know about the Moon is:
- The orbit of Earth takes 27 days.
- It pulls the water on our planet’s surface through gravity to create tides.
- These tides change throughout the year, changing the sea levels and shorelines globally.
- The intense movement of water around our shorelines is also another way in which vital nutrients is distributed to support the natural world.
- Tides work differently to currents, as they flush coastlines with nutrients, which benefits both land and sea.
- This benefits a huge variety of species that call our coastlines home, although it can also prove dangerous to those who do not have the skills needed to safely navigate the strong waters. (We’ve all been caught off-guard by a wave in our time, so I am sure you can appreciate the tides vast power!)
We encounter one species that specialises in finding food within the swirling tides in this episode. David Attenborough introduces us to the Eider duck, which is able to monopolise the food source of mussels beneath the tide and feed in the dangerous waters that would wash many animals away. This gives them a reliable source of food, even if it is tough work to get it!
However, not all tidal, coastal zones are harsh environments, some tides are gentler and can allow numerous species to take advantage of the area for new feeding grounds. This is the case for another of the amazing marine species featured – the Bottlenose Dolphins of the Bahamas. They make use of the stunning, flat, sandy seabed and can hunt for fish which are hidden below by using their clicking sound to locate their prey and bubbles to move sand and expose anything that is hiding below. Just one of the many species that are attracted to the area for the iconic sandy shoreline (myself included – desperate for a holiday! Who is with me!?)
Finally, we come back to that old familiar, climate change. You hear about it all the time, it’s the wolf at the door, it’s our house on fire, it’s the stranger that we avoid at the bar. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but it is as bad as all that and more. It is the single biggest issue that we have faced, and we are the generation who are make or break, for our species, our fellow non-human species and our collective home. We all know that I could write for days about climate change, but I will try and stay on topic of how it affects our oceans and the life below the surface.
Here we go.
Before we started to change the planet, the world had a balance, everything had it use and its reason for being the way it is. One of the most obvious examples of this is Mangroves. Mangroves are essentially forests along the coastlines of tropical regions. The trees are specially adapted to be able to survive living in salt water. They not only provide shelter for wildlife, some of which even use their advanced root systems as a sort of ‘marine nursery’ for their young, but they are vital, natural flood defences. The combination of the destruction of this habitat and ever-increasing extreme weather events due to the climate crisis, means that we need to appreciate the value of mangroves, and the order of the natural world, before we lose them forever. The local communities that have lost their mangrove forests are already feeling the impact, with many replanting and protecting their mangroves, in order to protect themselves. The importance of mangroves is really just tip of the iceberg in terms of protecting the natural world so that it can continue to support us.
There are many issues facing the oceans at the moment, some are obvious to us and have become ‘hot-topics’ over the past few years, such as melting icecaps and plastic pollution. However, the extent of the war that we are waging on our oceans goes much deeper. Here are some of the issues that are touched upon in this episode of ‘A Perfect Planet’, I urge you to think about and research your role in them and how we can all do more to mitigate our impact.
- Melting polar ice sheets. In the Arctic, 14,000 tonnes of fresh water are being dumped into the sea every second. This is having an impact on ocean temperature and salinity (salt concentration) that could be disastrous to marine life globally.
- This melt also slows the flow of currents and could eventually stop ocean circulation if climate continues to warm. This directly threatens all life within and around our oceans. This is already happening in some areas. The threat is very real.
- Agricultural pollution is suffocating the sea by contamination which leads to a reduction in oxygen levels. This has already changed the hunting habits of some large species, such as whales, as there is less food in these areas, so lower energy solutions to hunting need to be found.
- Globally animals are adapting to a rapidly changing world, however, the rapidity of this change will be the end to many. This is contributing to the suspected mass-extinction event that many are trying to prevent or, at the very least, reduce.
- Over-exploited lands and seas are already failing us, now is the time to make change, for the sake of all the earths inhabitants – but also for humanity.
I don’t want to end this section on too much of a downer. Yes, the situation is perilous, and action needs to be taken but I want to leave you feeling empowered and not depressed – we all know that we have plenty of reasons to feel that way already!!
Wind and storms can also be used to the advantage of some species. They create the waves that wash ashore and disturb the seabed’s in shallow waters which exposes nutrients. This, naturally, draws in small fish who come to feed – and where there are fish, there are predators!
I was delighted to see the focus shift to Black Tip Reef Sharks. They are a special species of shark for me, as they are the largest species of shark that I work with at the aquarium. I often sit and watch them as they swim gracefully around the water, so to see them in the wild on this episode felt like a real treat. We see the sharks hunting in the shallows to catch these small shoals of fish, and even joining forces with larger fish who are after the same shoals to improve their efficiency! Incredible! Seeing how intelligent animals are brings me so much joy. Sharks often get a bad reputation, due to their portrayal in the media, but I assure you that they are one of the most incredible species groups that you could research! Take whatever fear or misconceptions that you may have, that we all have to some degree, and take some time to learn about this fascinating, and threatened, species.
We have one more episode to dissect in this deep dive into David Attenborough’s ‘A Perfect Planet’ and it has been a joy so far to learn about the various systems that work together across the globe. There is so much to wonder at about our natural world, and it can at times feel overwhelming, but it is through interest and education that solutions to our environmental issues will be discovered. If anything about this series has sparked interest inside you, then follow that feeling and learn about the world around you. Solace in nature has been vital for many throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, so why not take some time to look at the amazing details about the world around you as a way of saying thank you.
If you have watched these episodes or have anything to say about the series as whole, or if you are an expert on volcanos, the sun or whatever – then please comment below and add to the conversation. As we hopefully head towards some sort of ‘new normal’ this year, let’s make sure we are taking action that will benefit this planet long-term and refuse to accept quick fixes and hollow excuses.
Written by Rebecca Hansell for Small World, Big Cause Blog – January 2021.
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