The seven-part series focuses on life and the environment in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The production team were keen to film a comprehensive record of the natural history of the polar regions, because climate change is affecting landforms such as glaciers, ice shelves, and the extent of sea ice. The film was met with critical acclaim and holds a Metacritic score of 90/100. Despite such, it has been criticized for limited coverage of the effects of global warming and attribution of recent climate change.
David Attenborough travels to the end of the Earth, taking viewers on an extraordinary journey across the polar regions of our planet, North and South. The Arctic and Antarctic are the greatest and least known wildernesses of all – magical ice worlds inhabited by the most bizarre and hardy creatures on Earth.
Our journey begins with David at the North Pole, as the sun returns after six months of darkness. We follow a pair of courting polar bears, which reveal a surprisingly tender side. Next stop is the giant Greenland ice cap, where waterfalls plunge into the heart of the ice and a colossal iceberg carves into the sea. Humpback whales join the largest gathering of seabirds on Earth to feast in rich Alaskan waters. Further south, the tree line marks the start of the taiga forest, containing one third of all trees on earth. Here, 25 of the world’s largest wolves take on formidable bison prey.
At the other end of our planet, the Antarctic begins in the Southern Ocean, where surfing penguins struggle to escape a hungry sea lion and teams of orcas create giant waves to wash seals from ice floes – a filming first. Diving below the ice, we discover prehistoric giants, including terrifying sea spiders and woodlice the size of dinner plates. Above ground, crystal caverns ring the summit of Erebus, the most southerly volcano on earth. From here, we retrace the routes of early explorers across the formidable Antarctic ice cap – the largest expanse of ice on our planet. Finally, we rejoin David at the South Pole, exactly one hundred years after Amundsen, then Scott, were the first humans to stand there.
Spring arrives in the polar regions, and the sun appears after an absence of five months; warmth and life return to these magical ice worlds – the greatest seasonal transformation on our planet is under way.
Male Adelie penguins arrive in Antarctica to build their nests – it takes a good property to attract the best mates and the males will stop at nothing to better their rivals! But these early birds face the fiercest storms on the planet.
In the Arctic, a polar bear mother is hunting with her cubs. Inland, the frozen rivers start to break up and billions of tons of ice are swept downstream in the greatest of polar spectacles. This melt-water fertilizes the Arctic Ocean, feeding vast shoals of Arctic cod and narwhal. The influx of freshwater accelerates the breakup of the sea ice – an area of ice the size of Australia will soon vanish from the Arctic.
On land, a woolly bear caterpillar emerges from the snow having spent the winter frozen solid. Caterpillars normally become moths within months of hatching, but life is so harsh here that the woolly bear takes 14 years to reach adulthood. Once mature, it has only days to find a mate before it dies! Alongside the caterpillars, white Arctic wolves race to raise their adorable cubs before the cold returns.
In Antarctica, vast numbers of seabirds arrive on South Georgia joining the giant albatross and king penguins that have been there all winter. Elephant seals fight furious battles over females on a beach that contains the greatest mass of animals on the planet.
Finally, the female Adelie penguins arrive, chased from the water by killer whales. Mating and chick rearing lie ahead of them.
It is high summer in the polar regions, and the sun never sets. Vast hordes of summer visitors cram a lifetime of drama into one long, magical day; they must feed, fight and rear their young in this brief window of plenty. Summer is a tough time for the polar bear family, as their ice world melts away and the cubs take their first swimming lesson. Some bears save energy by dozing on icy sun beds, while others go egg-collecting in an Arctic tern colony, braving bombardment by sharp beaks. There are even bigger battles on the tundra; a herd of musk oxen gallop to the rescue as a calf is caught in a life and death struggle with a pair of Arctic wolves. But summer also brings surprises, as a huge colony of 400,000 king penguins cope with an unlikely problem – heat. The adults go surfing, while the woolly-coated chicks take a cooling mud bath. Nearby, a bull fur seal is prepared to fight to the death with a rival. Fur flies as the little pups struggle desperately to keep out of the way of the duelling giants. Further south, a minke whale is hunted amongst the ice floes by a family of killer whales. The dramatic chase lasts over 2 hours and has never been filmed before. The killers harry the minke whale, taking it in turns to wear it down. Eventually it succumbs to the relentless battering. Finally, comical adelie penguins waddle back to their half a million strong colony like clockwork toys. The fluffy chicks need constant feeding and protection as piratical skuas patrol the skies. When an unguarded chick is snatched, a dramatic “dogfight” ensues.
For the animals in the polar regions, autumn means dramatic battles and epic journeys. Time is running out – the Arctic Ocean is freezing over and the sea ice is advancing at 2.5 miles per day around Antarctica.
Polar bears gather in large numbers on the Arctic coast as they wait for the return of the ice. Soon, tempers fray and violent sparring contests break out. Meanwhile 2,000 beluga whales head for one special estuary, a gigantic ‘whale spa’ where they will thrash their snow-white bodies against the gravel and exfoliate. Inland, the tundra undergoes a dramatic transformation from green to fiery red. Here, musk ox males slam head-first into each other with the force of a 30mph car crash as they struggle to defend their harems. Frisky young caribou males play a game of ‘grandma’s footsteps’ as they try to steal the boss’s female.
Down in Antarctica, Adelie penguin chicks huddle together in creches. When a parent returns from fishing, it leads its twins on a comical steeplechase – sadly there’s only enough for one, so the winner gets the meal. Two months later and the chicks are fully feathered apart from downy Mohican hairdos – they’re ready to take their first swim – reluctantly though, as it seems penguins are not born with a love of water! And with good reason – a leopard seal explodes from the sea and pulls one from an ice floe, a hunting manoeuvre that has never been filmed before. As winter approaches and everyone has left, the giant emperor penguin arrives and makes an epic trek inland to breed. The mothers soon return to the sea leaving the fathers to hold the eggs and endure the coldest winter on earth.
There is no greater test for life than winter, as temperatures plummet to 70 below and winds reach 200kph. Darkness and ice extend across the polar regions and only a few remarkable survivors gamble on remaining.
We join a female polar bear trekking into the Arctic mountains to give birth as the first blizzards arrive. Out on the frozen ocean, the entire world’s population of spectacled eider ducks brave the winter in a giant ice hole kept open by ferocious currents. Arctic forests transform into a wonderland of frost and snow – the scene of a desperate and bloody battle between wolf and bison, but also where a remarkable alliance between raven and wolverine is made. Beneath the snow lies a magical world of winter survivors. Here tiny voles dodge the clutches of the great grey owl, but cannot escape the ultimate under-show predator – the least weasel.
Midwinter and a male polar bear wanders alone across the dark, empty icescape. Below the snow, polar bear cubs begin life in an icy den while fantastical auroras light the night skies above. In Antarctica, we join male emperor penguins in their darkest hour, battling to protect precious eggs from fierce polar storms. Weddell seals escape to a hidden world of jewel-coloured corals and alien-looking creatures but frozen devastation follows as sinister ice stalactites reach down with deadly effect.
The sun finally returns, and with it comes the female emperor penguins, sleek and fat, ready to deliver the first meal to their precious chick. Having survived winter, this ultimate ice family now have a head start in raising baby. The Adelies flood back and as the ice edge bustles with life, male emperor penguins can finally return to the sea.
The documentary series reveals the extraordinary riches and wonders of the polar regions that have kept people visiting them for thousands of years. Today, their survival relies on a combination of ancient wisdom and cutting-edge science.
Most Arctic people live in Siberia, either in cities like Norilsk – the coldest city on earth – or out on the tundra, where tribes like the Dogan survive by herding reindeer, using them to drag their homes behind them. On the coast, traditional people still hunt walrus from open boats – it is dangerous work, but one big walrus will feed a family for weeks. Settlers are drawn to the Arctic by its abundant minerals; the Danish Armed Forces maintain their claim to Greenland’s mineral wealth with an epic dog sled patrol, covering 2,000 miles through the winter. Above, the spectacular northern lights can disrupt power supplies so scientists monitor it constantly, firing rockets into it to release a cloud of glowing smoke 100 kilometres high.
In contrast, Antarctica is so remote and cold that it was only a century ago that the first people explored the continent. Captain Scott’s hut still stands as a memorial to these men. Science is now the only significant human activity allowed; robot submarines are sent deep beneath the ice in search of new life-forms, which may also be found in a labyrinth of ice caves high up on an active volcano. Above, colossal balloons are launched into the purest air on earth to detect cosmic rays.
At the South Pole there is a research base designed to withstand the world’s most extreme winters.
David Attenborough journeys to both polar regions to investigate what rising temperatures will mean for the people and wildlife that live there and for the rest of the planet.
David starts out at the North Pole, standing on sea ice several metres thick, but which scientists predict could be open ocean within the next few decades. The Arctic has been warming at twice the global average, so David heads out with a Norwegian team to see what this means for polar bears. He comes face-to-face with a tranquilised female, and discovers that mothers and cubs are going hungry as the sea ice on which they hunt disappears. In Canada, Inuit hunters have seen with their own eyes what scientists have seen from space; the Arctic Ocean has lost 30% of its summer ice cover over the last 30 years. For some, the melting sea ice will allow access to trillions of dollars worth of oil, gas and minerals. For the rest of us, it means the planet will get warmer, as sea ice is important to reflect back the sun’s energy. Next David travels to see what is happening to the ice on land: in Greenland, we follow intrepid ice scientists as they study giant waterfalls of meltwater, which are accelerating iceberg calving events, and ultimately leading to a rise in global sea level.
Temperatures have also risen in the Antarctic – David returns to glaciers photographed by the Shackleton expedition and reveals a dramatic retreat over the past century. It is not just the ice that is changing – ice-loving adelie penguins are disappearing, and more temperate gentoo penguins are moving in. Finally, we see the first ever images of the largest recent natural event on our planet – the break up of the Wilkins Ice Shelf, an ice sheet the size of Jamaica, which shattered into hundreds of icebergs in 2009.