In addition to a proclivity for digging into detailed reports and sharing choice policy nuggets with Ecocentric readers so we can all stay in the know, I am also a lifelong nature show fan. So, when a BBC publicist offered us a screener of the British version of Frozen Planet (narrated by David Attenborough), I jumped at the chance to review it for Ecocentric. Over the past seven weeks, its American counterpart (narrated by Alec Baldwin) has aired on the Discovery Channel in the U.S., having premiered on the BBC last fall. Between recent controversy over how climate change was—or was not—tackled by producers and the series' DVD/Blu-ray release, it’s a good time for us to check this out for those of you who missed it.
Without further ado, here’s what you need to know:
Climate Change Controversy
25 minutes into the seventh episode “On Thin Ice,” we hear: “The state of the ice affects the entire planet’s climate.” So the climate is changing. Human activity may be involved. (Knitting? Bowling? Reading?) Clearly squirming, the producers avoid delving into prickly matters with discussions about hard science, economic development, environmental history or the implications of global political choices. Moreover, rumor has it the Discovery Channel did not want to air this last hour at all (toothless though it was), since climate change is such a controversial issue for a small—but extremely vocal—minority in the U.S.
Frozen Planet explains, in quick-and-dirty fashion, why melting ice matters so much to climate change. I'll repeat it here: ice is white, and a frozen white Arctic reflects back much of the sun’s incoming energy/heat; an Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the earth means blue water absorbs heat instead, thus speeding the entire warming process. Warmer water = more melting ice = more warm water = more melting ice…you get the idea.
By way of dispassionate facts, Attenborough tells us in the Very Special Seventh Episode that satellite photos show a 30 percent reduction in icepack between 1980 and 2010, and military documentation that the ice is half as thick as it was in 1980. The Northwest Passage was clear of ice in 2007 ; this will allow faster and cheaper shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. (Attenborough also says that the warming will be good for “some people” and then there is a smash cut to an oil refinery. I'm not making that up.)
Discovery has partnered with several reputable environmental organizations for the release of Frozen Planet and has not said much else, beyond expressed wishes to entice a wide viewership.
You knew this was coming, right? Violent combat between predators and prey ensue, so we're treated to some genuinely astonishing and gripping footage of seal vs. penguin, orcas vs. seal, wolves vs. bison, caribou vs. caribou and weasels vs. voles. Oh, and Alec Baldwin (U.S.) vs. David Attenborough (U.K.). The narrator battle is one of taste, not brute strength. Baldwin lends a charming Everyman quality to the proceedings, while Attenborough inspires the majesty and awe inherent to viewing several never-before-filmed scenes. (For instance, as ice branicles form and encase starfish and other critters on the ocean floor. It’s the most stunning time-lapse footage I've ever seen.)
Camera crews hang out in close proximity to a hungry female polar bear (cubs in tow). Two filmmakers endure below-zero hurricane-force winds in a hut while awaiting the arrival of Adélie penguins. Of more scientific import (and thus more impressive to me, because he’s a Superhero Scientist): Alan Hubbard, glaciologist, climbs into half-mile deep holes through which water plunged in Greenland, immediately draining two-mile wide meltlakes. Gorgeous and sapphire blue, the meltlakes are another sign that something is amiss with our climate. And that episode of NOVA I watched a few months ago agrees with me.
Polar bear cubs. Hungry little furry caterpillars who eat and stay alive for 14 years thanks to antifreeze in their blood, and become moths for one fleeting summer. Penguins. This has been said elsewhere, but nearly a decade after March of the Penguins, we still can’t get enough. Flying penguins. Egg-toting penguins. Penguins who steal from other penguins. Penguins who shoot out of the ocean onto the lap of a cameraman. The Penguin Cam. C'mon!
Frozen Planet is worth your time for its gorgeous, inspiring vistas and photography. You (and your kids) will definitely learn a few things, and though there are some aforementioned combat scenes and discussions of mating behaviors, the series is generally not too graphic. As to the narration and framing of the story, you're right if it seems as though something is missing. That “something” is what makes this footage all the more extraordinary: we could be witnessing the end of an era on our planet that future generations may never know.
Frozen Planet is available via DVD and Blu-ray on Netflix and at your video store.