Given that most of North America is currently experiencing a record-breaking deep freeze, this might be the perfect time to ruminate on some of the coldest places on earth and those that live there. BBC Earth’s latest, Arctic: Our Frozen Planet, helps audiences do just that while providing them with a gorgeous but sombre reminder that this fragile and beautiful ecosystem is crumbling in the face of climate change.
Like the deepest reaches of the planet’s oceans, the Arctic feels like another world–one the majority of us know little about. But the film is ready to do its part in unravelling the mysteries of the seemingly inhospitable tundra while educating us on why the effects of the climate crisis there should matter to us no matter where we live.
For millennia the land and those living on it have experienced the regular rhythm of thaws and freezes, but as our planet warms, that delicate balance has been lost. It’s not hard to believe, as the film lays out, that the Arctic is changing faster than anywhere else on earth. The film works hard to educate, listing an impressive number of sobering statistics, but thankfully it also allows viewers the space to take in the information and visuals simultaneously without losing the thread.
The film covers one year in the region, beginning in the dead of winter. Director Rachel Scott’s camera catches the wind blowing across the stark tundra, and it’s impossible not to feel that cold deep in your bones even in the comfort of a theatre or living room. And at minus 40 degrees Celsius on a good day, it’s hard to imagine anything surviving out there. But they do.
We’re shown how both teamwork and isolation make survival possible. Super packs of wolves four times bigger than a normal pack search for days for food, howling back and forth as they hunt together. Bison, the most dangerous of their prey, flee before them in herds through deep snow. The documentary follows both groups as they enter a 5-hour-long game of lethal hide and seek.
There’s even time amid the cold for animals to frolic, bringing to mind the giddiness the first snow of winter often brings. The footage of two young polar bears meeting for the first time and forming a playful relationship as they slide on and dive through the ice is a highlight. As is the footage of a harp seal pup and his mother, who has only 12 days to prepare him for independence. No one can blame him when he’s wary of his first dip into the ice-cold Arctic Ocean. And it would take the most hard-hearted of viewers not to shed a tear at his lonely, plaintive cry when he realizes his mother has left him to fend for himself.
Our Frozen Planet also serves as an important reminder that the Arctic is home to over 40 different ethnic communities, including the Inuit in Canada’s north. They too rely on the sea ice to find food and harvest animal pelts. And with global warming, journeys that used to be second nature to them are becoming perilous because of the rise in temperature. One Indigenous resident in Greenland tells the crew that the ice is half as thick as it used to be and now melts a full month earlier. It’s a damning real life example of the personal costs of the climate crisis.
But perhaps the most interesting moment of the film comes not from humans or their fellow mammals, but from a creature most of us wouldn’t associate with the northern-most reaches of the world: a Lapland Bumble Bee. The footage of one Queen, awakening from her 9-month slumber, is astounding in both its detail and beauty. The importance of her work, and those like her, cannot be understated. And, like her many cousins to the south, her very existence is under threat too.
It’s here, in the film’s examination of the Arctic in spring and summer, that the documentary truly captures the region’s vast ecosystem. There are bees pollinating and caribous migrating. There are blooms of plankton in the ocean that bring masses of birds and pods of narwhal, beluga, and bowhead whales hunting for their next microscopic meal. And let’s not forget the waddling walruses as they molt and roll noisily about on the Arctic’s many shores.
The rising temperatures here are particularly hard on these already warm mammals, but they’re even harder on the summer sea ice as a whole. The film shows us the radical consequences of losing 50% of that ice over the past 40 years in an impactful line of time-lapse images. The sheer force of the Greenland sheet’s meltwater is overwhelming to see and composes some of the the film’s most breath-taking, but depressing shots. It’s the number one contributor to the world’s rising sea levels, which in turn–according to scientists–affect ocean currents and weather patterns across the planet.
Scott and her team clearly had an astounding amount of footage to sort through and pick from, both on land and under water and each chosen frame is impressive and eye-catching. They ably demonstrate the Arctic is a place of extremes and unlike anywhere else on earth. And they make just as clear that the damage being done here is unique and costly.
Though the majority of the film is centred around wildlife and their fight for survival, the voices of Indigenous community members and scientists dedicating their lives to studying the impacts of climate change add a welcome layer of human connection. It would’ve been nice to hear more from both groups about the work they’re doing together on the impact of climate change, but at a brisk 44 minutes, it’s not surprising that some moments or stories feel a tad under delivered. This is a rare project that would strongly benefit from added time.
But short or long, Our Frozen Planet impresses even on a moderately-sized television. It’s not hard to imagine the added awe that would come from seeing it on an immense screen in 3D. The score, credited to Hans Zimmer, Adam Lukas and James Everingham, is the perfect accompaniment to the film’s stunning imagery, uplifting and supporting every stunning bit of footage. Add in the booming baritone of Benedict Cumberbatch‘s narration, adding just the right amount of humour or urgency to his delivery depending on the moment, and this is a doc that leaves an impact. A solid first step in helping ensure the survival of those who reside there–human, animal, and insect.
Tune in to a behind-the-scenes look with narrator Cumberbatch below, then scroll down for the film’s full trailer.