Narrated by Sir David Attenborough,
explains how the living planet operates. The first four programmes will
show how the forces of nature - weather, ocean currents, solar energy and volcanoes -
shape and support Earth’s great diversity of life. In doing so, it will reveal how
are perfectly adapted to whatever the environment throws at them. The final episode in
series looks at the dramatic impact of the world’s newest force of nature: humans - and
can be done to restore our planet’s perfect balance.
Full broadcast details and links to watch on BBC iPlayer, once available, will be on the
BBC programme page.11
Copyright: Huw Cordey/Silverback Films
Yasur volcano, lava lake erupting with volcanologist, Tanna Island, Vanuatu.
Without volcanoes life on Planet Earth would never have got started. They are responsible for both
our breathable atmosphere and the oceans. They are also the architects of the planet, with over
eighty per cent of the Earth’s surface being the result of magma bursting up from the molten
interior - providing a platform for life. And with around fifteen hundred currently active volcanoes
on land alone, like Kilauea on Hawaii, it’s work that never stops.
Ol Donyo Lengai, in Tanzania, is one of Africa’s most active volcanoes. Sitting on Lengai’s northern
flank and fed by a concentration of chemicals from the volcano, Lake Natron is one of the world’s
most corrosive bodies of water but, when conditions are right, it becomes a focal point for two
million lesser flamingos, who come to the lake to breed. Nesting in the dry centre, the flamingos’
newly hatched chicks are safe from land predators by a moat of caustic soda. It’s only when the
chicks begin their epic trek to freshwater springs at the edge of the lake that their challenges
Female land iguanas, in the Galapagos, also take advantage of what volcanoes have to offer. Every
year, up to 2,000 of these lizards, all heavy with eggs, make the ten day trek from the coast
to the top of La Cumbre, Fernandina Island’s active volcano, from where they descend the precipitous
slopes to the crater floor. Once at the bottom, they lay their eggs in the ash, which is the
perfect temperature for incubating their eggs.
Volcanic islands make up just five per cent of the planet’s land but they are home to nearly twenty
per cent of its species. Animals often evolve very quickly on islands: sometimes in truly bizarre
ways. On the island of Wolf, in the Galapagos, a group of castaway finches have overcome the limited
supply of food and water by exploiting a completely un-finch-like diet. They have learnt to feed on
the blood of the seabirds that roost and breed on the island. It’s an adaptation that has turned
them into Galapagos’s newest bird species – the vampire finch.
Volcanic islands don’t last forever but as the land disappears beneath the waves, coral continues to
grow up around the shore and with changing sea levels eventually all that’s left is a lagoon
surrounded by a coral reef – an atoll. Aldabra, in the Indian Ocean, is one of the world’s largest
atolls and it’s now home to one hundred thousand giant tortoises.
Volcanic hotspots are also the source of powerful thermal activity at the surface. Yellowstone, in
the centre of North America, sits on top of a vast, dormant volcano but not far below ground there
is still magma and that heats the ground water to boiling point. Thermally heated springs keep some
of Yellowstone’s rivers running even during the coldest winters – enabling river otters to fish year
round. In Russia’s Kamchatka, when the rest of Kamchatka is covered in snow, this valley remains
green and ice free providing much needed forage for bears. Every year, millions of salmon come to
Kurile Lake to spawn and it attracts the greatest assembly of brown bears found anywhere on the
planet. The lake’s water has been fertilised by mineral rich ash from regular volcanic eruptions and
this provides the salmon’s newly hatched young with abundant food.
Copyright: Sarah-Jane Walsh/ Silverback Films
Arctic fox with pups, Karrak Lake, Canada.
Life on our planet is powered by a solar force – the Sun. Every patch on Earth gets 4,380 hours of
sunlight a year but in different doses depending on where you are: a variation that shapes much of
the natural world.
Seasonal variations in light are due to the fact that the Earth spins on a tilt - 23.5 degrees
– which means different parts of the planet are angled towards the sun at different times of the
year. Through close-up, stories of beguiling animal characters, this episode reveals how the
planet’s living things have come up with brilliant adaptations to survive uneven amounts of
The exception is on the equator where the duration of day and night remain the same throughout the
year. Here, we discover how this guaranteed sunlight drives the great diversity of life we call the
tropical jungles. Jumping into the canopy with acrobatic, fruit-eating gibbons, we enter the strange
macro world of the fig wasp, revealing their spellbinding relationship with the jungle’s most
At the extreme ends of the Earth – the Poles - the loss of solar power lasts not for half a day but
for nearly half a year. With no sunlight energy for months, the atmosphere chills, temperatures
plummet and water freezes. This seems almost unliveable, unless you are an Arctic wolf or muskox –
supreme polar specialists in surviving long periods without sunlight.
Animals have come up with ingenious solutions to deal with the differences in the Sun’s energy
the globe. In the Sahara, silver ants have evolved adaptations that make them masters in coping
with too much sunlight. During winter’s chill, wood frogs have found a way to save energy by
allowing themselves to freeze solid. In this suspended animation their hearts stop beating
The seasonal shift in the the Sun’s power across the Earth means that in some places residents must
cram a full life into short periods of time. For Canada’s most northerly reptile, the garter snake,
the warming temperatures of late Spring trigger the largest emergence of snakes on earth, taking part
in a mass mating ritual. For Arctic foxes these are also times of feverish activity, cramming
feeding, hunting and breeding for the entire year into a few summer months. In Autumn, the golden
snub-nosed monkeys of China’s seasonal forests, life or death is determined by a narrow window where
they must stockpile enough energy resources to survive winter’s power cut.
When the cold starts to bite in the Southern Hemisphere, thousands of sooty shearwaters set off from
Snares’ Island in New Zealand and head north - chasing the sun on an epic 10,000-mile
migration to arrive in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands for summer. Here, the shearwaters are joined by
hundreds of humpback whales in one of the most dynamic and thrilling feeding spectacles on
Copyright: Toby Nowlan/Silverback Films
A herd of puku look down over the steep riverbank at a colony of carmine bee eaters in Zambia's Luangwa Valley.
Water is vital for the existence of all life. We live in a world that has it in abundance, yet most
of this water is inaccessible to us. 97% is sea water, too salty for terrestrial life to use. Just
3% exists as freshwater, and almost all of this is locked up as ice, or hidden underground. Only a
tiny fraction can be accessed by life on land – and only then through the action of our planet’s
weather. For weather is the force that ditributes this freshwater around the world.
Every year the sun evaporates 434 million billion liters of water from our oceans – 20 times the
volume of all the Great Lakes of North America and Canada combined. This water rises into the sky
where it forms clouds, before falling as rain, sometimes thousands of miles away. Without the sun
making rain, there would be no freshwater on Earth – and terrestrial life could not exist.
But where water is concerned, our planet is not created equal. Some regions experience extreme
amounts of rain year round, some just a few millimeters, whilst others must deal with extreme shifts
between wet and dry seasons. This distribution of freshwater around the globe has shaped the lives
of animals all across the planet – and in doing so it has given rise to an incredible diversity of
species and habitats, from the driest desert to the lushest tropical rainforest.
Copyright: Ed Charles / Silverback Films
Marine iguanas getting ready to brave the chilly waters off Fernandina Island in the Galapagos.
Oceans are the largest ecosystem on Earth, covering 2/3rds of the surface of our world and providing
half the oxygen in our atmosphere. It’s thought that they’re home to as much as 80% of all life on
Earth, and nearly 3 billion people rely on them for their primary source of food. But if it was not
for one simple factor, our planet’s oceans would be little more than stagnant wastelands, and life
on Earth – not just in the oceans – would cease to exist. So what is it about our Perfect Planet’s
oceans that brings about so much life?
The answer is that all the world’s oceans are connected – dip your toe in the sea off Cornwall, and
you are connected to every ocean and sea on our planet. There are not five, separate oceans, but
one, linked by a network of powerful currents that are forever on the move. Every drop of seawater
on Earth rides these currents, taking a thousand years to complete a single circuit.
All marine life depends on this continuous movement of water – from vast super-pods of dolphins and
the flocks of gannets that follow them as they scour the oceans searching for a meal, to the tiny
yet dazzling flamboyant cuttlefish that’s looking for a mate. All rely on currents to carry vital
nutrients across the ocean – but currents are just part of the story.
Other forces bring nutrients to our planet’s coastal regions, the most productive parts of our seas.
Winds blowing across the open ocean create rolling swells that travel thousands of miles towards the
coast. When these swells hit the shallows, massive waves are spawned that crash against the shore,
stirring up nutrients to be exploited by countless species. For some, like blacktip sharks and
trevally, waves create rich hunting grounds – but for others like rockhopper penguins, the massive
swells that crash into their island home make returning back to their colony a potentially deadly
Our oceans are also driven by another force – the gravitational pull of the moon which causes the
ocean to bulge at two points. Twice a day – every day – tides mix up the waters of our shallow seas
creating new opportunities for huge amounts of life on both land and sea: the fast-flowing tides of
Norway provide the perfect condition for filter feeding mussels, which are the favourite food of
eider ducks, whilst more gentle tides like those seen in the Bahamas create the ideal opportunity
for lemon sharks to give birth in the relative safety of flooded mangrove forests.
Without this mixing from currents, tides and waves, our oceans would stop supporting life – a
healthy ocean is vital to a healthy planet.
Copyright: Silverback Films / Moonraker
A visualization of Carbon Dioxide in Earth's atmosphere using data from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre.
Our home, a blue glowing beacon of life, hangs alone in the cosmos. The only living world we know
of. But a new force, one so powerful that it is upsetting the balance of life on earth, threatens
our perfect planet – that force is us.
Humans are changing our planet so rapidly, it’s affecting earth’s life support systems: our weather,
our oceans and the living world. To understand what is going wrong, we must look to the past.
Earth has been through at least five mass extinction events, most of which have been caused by
cataclysmic volcanic eruptions. It’s not the lava or ash that wiped out life but an invisible gas
released by volcanoes, Carbon Dioxide or CO2.
Through compelling animal-led stories and expert interviews, we discover how the invisible gas is
destabilising Earth. We meet rescued orphaned elephants in Kenya, victims of ever worsening
droughts, and join ocean patrols off the coast of Gabon fighting to save endangered sharks. In the
Amazon, we witness wildlife teams saving animals in the shrinking forests and in San Diego we enter
a cryogenic zoo preserving the DNA of endangered species before they go extinct.
Almost every part of modern life depends on energy created by burning fossil fuels; this produces
CO2 in huge amounts. Humans are now acting like a super-volcano releasing carbon dioxide
at an even greater rate than the prehistoric mega-eruptions that extinguished life in the past.
Globally, we now release one hundred times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all of
Earth's volcanoes combined.
The greatest change we must make is how we create our energy, and Earth is brimming with natural
power to do just that – wind, solar, wave and geothermal It’s these forces of nature, that have
shaped life, which hold the key to our future.
Copyright: The Open University
Prof. Stephen Lewis, Professor of Atmospheric Physics
Stephen Lewis is Professor of Atmospheric Physics at The Open University. His research interests
include the dynamics of planetary atmospheres and using computer modelling to understand
spacecraft observations and the evolution of planetary climates. This includes Mars, Venus, the
Giant Planets, Exoplanets and the climate of Earth in the distant past. Results from Stephen’s
work have been used by both ESA and NASA in planning space missions, in particular for Mars
exploration. He teaches subjects ranging from Electromagnetism to Environmental
Copyright: The Open University
Philip is a Senior Lecturer in Ecology at The Open University. He is interested in a wide
range of conservation and environmental management questions. In the past he has been interested
in tackling real-world conservation problems, particularly by investigating landscape-scale
processes, but he is now increasingly interested in urban environments, and particularly urban
trees. His areas of teaching and research are quite varied, ranging from species ecology to
wildlife monitoring and conservation, quantitative methods and spatial modelling.