Life on Our Planet (2023) s01e08 Episode Script

Chapter 8: Age of Ice and Fire

[wind howling]
[Morgan Freeman] For 90%
of our planet's history,
it has been too warm for ice to form.
So when the Ice Age hit
two and a half million years ago,
its impact was huge.
[poignant music playing]
This is the story of a great freeze
and the rise of a dynasty
that would bring life
to the brink of extinction.
[music intensifies]
- [music ends]
- [echoing howls]
[rousing music playing]
[rousing music continues]
[wind howling]
[rousing music intensifies]
[music fades]
[ambient music playing]
[bird caws]
[ethereal vocalizing]
Yellowstone is one of the coldest places
in America.
In winter, it still endures
some of the same freezing conditions
that an ice age brings.
Temperatures can drop
below minus 50 degrees.
Only those built for the cold can survive.
A bison's thick coat
is such good insulation,
they need little energy to keep warm
which is just as well,
as grass is hard to find beneath the snow.
But bison aren't
the only hungry ones here.
[high-pitched squawking]
Wolves can also withstand
the coldest of winters
and have been hunting bison in America
for more than 100,000 years.
To split up the herd
the pack needs to get them moving.
[bison grunting]
Panic gives the wolves control.
[tense music playing]
The herd must stick together.
One trip could prove fatal.
But the bison can't run forever,
especially in the deep snow.
[wolves whining, growling]
[wolf growls]
Their only hope
is to turn and face their pursuers.
Only then does the pack finally relent.
[bison grunting]
But no matter where they go,
the wolves will follow.
Age-old enemies that have been
locked in battle for millennia.
Yet these ancient adversaries are lucky
for they can look forward
to the end of winter
and the relief of spring.
[bison bellowing]
But there was a time when winter
never seemed to end.
Two and a half million years ago,
changes in the Earth's orbit,
ocean currents, and carbon dioxide levels
led to an abrupt cooling of the planet.
The great Ice Age had begun
[ethereal music playing]
and it started
with the tiniest of things.
On its own, a snowflake
is a fragile, frozen wonder.
No two the same.
But together,
snowflakes changed the world.
Without warm summers to melt them,
snow blanketed the north of the globe
[music ends]
and, over thousands of years, compacted
to form permanent ice sheets
several kilometers thick.
Here, in this silent realm,
life was frozen out of existence.
But south of the ice sheets,
a new world was created
where life could thrive.
Circling almost
the entire Northern Hemisphere,
the tundra-steppe
became Earth's most extensive habitat.
Mammals that adapted well to the cold
dominated these frigid lands
including the largest
and most iconic of them all
[creatures rumbling]
woolly mammoths.
Their elephant-like ancestors
left Africa millions of years earlier
and evolved
into these highly specialized beasts.
Long hair, smaller ears, and shorter tails
help them conserve heat in the cold.
They are guided by an old female,
the matriarch,
who passes her knowledge
down the generations.
Generations she needs to keep safe.
[roaring, snorting]
[ominous music playing]
Bigger than lions today,
cave lions can bring down
the very largest of prey.
But smaller is easier.
With little cover,
the brazen cats don't even try to hide.
Instead, they bide their time,
waiting for the right moment.
The calf must stay close
to its protectors
but the hunters have him in their sights.
- [snarling]
- [mammoths trumpeting]
The mammoths form a wall of tusks
but the lions aren't going anywhere.
The matriarch has had enough
- [snarling]
- [trumpeting]
but one of the hunters
spots an opportunity.
[tense music playing]
- [growls]
- [bellowing]
The teenager will never stray
from the herd again.
Now it's the lions' turn to defend.
- [roaring]
- [snarling]
The calf's mother
knows it's a lost cause.
They have no choice but to back down
and protect the generations that remain.
All they can do
is continue their migration
across the cold tundra-steppe.
While ice never completely
engulfed the planet,
its impact was still felt
across the globe
sometimes in the most unexpected ways.
With most of the world's water
locked up as ice,
the land became increasingly dry.
This is the flip side of an ice age.
South of the tundra-steppe,
the deserts almost doubled in size,
devouring everything in their path.
[unsettling music playing]
[whispered vocalizing]
Only desert specialists that had evolved
to withstand extreme heat
could survive such hostile conditions.
But the drying didn't stop there.
Even further south,
Africa's tropical rainforests,
stable sanctuaries for life
for over 50 million years,
almost completely disappeared
[stirring music playing]
[music ends abruptly]
replaced by a vast expanse
of dry forest and grassland.
The impact on life was huge,
not least on one group of animals
[honks, yaps]
the primates.
Baboons share 94% of their DNA with us,
as well as a crucial part of our story.
The descent from the treetops
to a life on the forest floor.
Down here, during the Ice Age,
our cousins faced many new challenges.
Life on the ground is more dangerous
[tense music playing]
[baboon barking]
home to large predators.
Fortunately, what primates lack
in strength and size,
we make up for
with intelligence and large families.
[gentle music playing]
But finding enough food
to feed many mouths
is a constant challenge.
[elephant growling]
So when food is found,
it attracts plenty of attention.
- And where there's a precious resource
- [elephant snorts]
conflict is inevitable
- [warthog squeals]
- [baboon grunts]
not least with your own kind.
[tense, dramatic music playing]
A rival troop
with no appetite for sharing.
- [barking]
- [screeching]
In the dry forest,
every fruit is worth fighting for
and every fight counts.
[energetic music playing]
[music slows]
The rival troop cut their losses.
- [clicking]
- But they'll be back.
To overcome the challenges
of a more hostile world,
primates relied
on their social intelligence,
a trait that, in time,
would lead to one species of primate
achieving global domination.
[ominous music playing]
[music ends]
The buildup of ice in the north
affected the climate across the planet.
But just as life got used
to colder, drier conditions,
everything changed.
The ice began to melt
as Earth's orbit shifted once more
and global temperatures began to rise.
[somber music playing]
What started as a series
of meltwater streams
soon turned into a deluge.
[somber music continues]
In North America, the meltwater
formed an enormous glacial lake
600 meters deep
and covering 10,000 square kilometers.
The only thing stopping the water
from flooding the land to the west
was a towering wall of ice.
On the far side,
the wall was almost a kilometer high
[ominous music playing]
a seemingly unstoppable barrier
but not for much longer.
[faint rumbling]
As temperatures kept rising
and the meltwater lake kept growing,
the pressure from behind increased.
[creaking, rumbling]
Before long, the walls started to crumble
from the inside out
until finally, catastrophic collapse.
[dramatic music playing]
In an instant, a lake the size
of the Irish Sea is unleashed.
[music fades]
[birds tweeting]
Thirty kilometers south,
and the first hint
of the coming apocalypse.
[faint rumbling]
They sense danger
but there's nowhere to hide.
[rumbling intensifies]
The first they see is a wall of dust.
A hundred meters high,
it's the vanguard of a giant tsunami.
[epic music playing]
[music fades]
In just ten hours,
the megaflood smashes
an 800-kilometer-long path
through the American continent,
all the way to the ocean.
[mournful music playing]
Natural wonders that might otherwise
take millennia to form
are created in a matter of hours.
[ethereal music playing]
But these spectacles are short-lived.
Just a few days later,
all that remains
is an eerie silence.
[music fades to silence]
The indelible scars of this megaflood
still mark the American landscape today
yet since the dawn of the Ice Age,
there have been more than 50 cycles
of ice buildup and melt
each causing its own epic floods.
[optimistic music playing]
Once the turmoil
of the last great melt subsided,
balance slowly returned across the land.
Rainfall became more regular
allowing forests to bounce back.
[chirping, tweeting]
Deserts shrunk and greened
as, once again, water flowed.
And where water flows,
life soon follows.
Europe's Danube delta
is one of the largest wetlands
in the world.
It formed after the last great melt
and quickly became home
to an incredible wealth of animal life.
With so much food on offer,
whiskered terns travel
thousands of kilometers
to breed in these rich waters.
It's the perfect place to raise a family
but it's a wasted journey
if a male arrives too late
to find a female.
All he can do
is watch the success of others.
[slow, playful music playing]
With his rival gone
now is his chance.
Food makes an excellent gift
but she's not impressed.
He tries his luck nonetheless
but to no avail.
The spurned male must dine alone.
Only when life is so bountiful
can females afford to be so choosy.
The end of the Ice Age
ushered in not only a time of plenty
but also a time
of great climate stability
a time known as the Holocene.
During this period,
warm, wet conditions prevailed
and average global temperatures
fluctuated by
less than one degree Celsius,
allowing life to flourish
in every corner of the world
each species boasting
an unbroken line of ancestry
stretching back four billion years
to the very origin of life on Earth.
[gentle music playing]
[music fades]
However, not everything thrived
during the Holocene.
A strange and highly selective extinction
was underway.
Across the planet,
the largest land animals
were disappearing.
Mammoths, cave lions,
and hundreds of other species vanished.
North America was particularly hard-hit,
losing over 70% of its giants
but not all.
In the absence of competitors,
bison took over the great plains
- [grunting]
- roaming in huge numbers.
- [grunting]
- But they weren't alone.
[ominous music playing]
With fewer big prey to choose from,
bison became the focus
of another group of survivors.
Age-old enemies.
Their best defense
is to keep an eye on the danger,
stick together, and calmly move on.
But these are no ordinary hunters
for the Ice Age saw the spread
of a new predator.
[ominous music continues]
Like wolves,
we hunted in groups.
And what we lacked in strength and speed
we made up for
with intelligence and cunning.
The evolution of our large, complex brains
had set us apart from other primates
and enabled us to hunt
in increasingly sophisticated ways.
[slow, majestic music playing]
Mimicking wolves
and using carefully placed stone stacks,
hunters corralled the bison for miles,
until they were exactly
where they wanted them.
[music fades]
[bison grunting]
Only then do they close in
behind the herd.
Reveal themselves too soon
and days of effort will be wasted.
[ominous music playing]
Their ultimate prize
isn't the death of one,
but the fall of many
to feed many over the winter months.
The trap is set.
All they need is a little encouragement.
[hunters shrieking]
- [shrieking]
- [dramatic music playing]
[music ends]
[dramatic music resumes]
[music ends]
[rocks clattering]
[dull thud]
By the early Holocene,
humans had spread out of Africa
to almost every continent on Earth
and become
the world's most dangerous predator.
[distant cries]
While our rise contributed
to the global extinction
of large land animals,
our story could have been a short one
had we not done something remarkable.
[suspenseful music playing]
We freed ourselves from the uncertainty
of a hunter-gatherer existence
by forming alliances with nature.
The stable climate of the Holocene
enabled our ancestors
to develop a unique relationship
with plants.
They hand-selected certain species
and sowed their seeds
where they were best able to grow.
[gentle music playing]
All this care and attention
dramatically increased
the plants' chances of survival,
and in return,
humans could reap the rewards.
They learned how to produce more food
and to make it last all year round.
And where their plants grew,
people prospered.
Our ancestors discovered
how to ensure a stable food supply.
And it wasn't just plants
they domesticated.
[cattle lowing]
Animals too.
Across the world,
many hunter-gatherers
gave up their nomadic lifestyles
in favor of farming.
Slowly but surely,
the wilderness was transformed,
tamed by human hands.
Freed from the constant battle
to find food,
human populations grew,
work diversified,
society became more complex
and civilizations were born.
[rousing music playing]
We achieved something
no other species has ever done.
We broke free of nature and rose above it.
Agriculture changed everything
but another revolution was coming.
[rousing music intensifies]
[music fades]
Our ingenuity has taken us further
than we could ever have imagined,
and our story is now written
on the surface of the Earth.
What was once wild has been tamed or lost.
We're too successful for our own good
and for that of the planet
and we are now causing
the next mass extinction.
[solemn music playing]
It's not just
that simply feeding ourselves
takes up more than half
of all habitable land
and it's not just
that the carbon dioxide we are releasing
is heating our planet faster
than at any time
in the last 500 million years.
Nor is it just that we are warming
and acidifying the oceans,
destroying their natural balance
and killing off
vast swathes of marine life.
Nor is it just that we are causing
extreme weather events
[thunder crashing]
fire and drought
that are returning the Earth
to its barren beginnings.
And it's not just that we are doing
any one of these
but that we are doing all of them,
all at the same time.
And to make matters worse,
we are doing it at meteoric speed.
[music quickens]
[music ends abruptly]
Although rare, mass extinctions change
the course of history like nothing else.
So far, Earth has endured
five of these apocalyptic events,
each one wiping out
more than three-quarters of all life.
What's more, the dominant species going in
are not the dominant species coming out.
The impact of a mass extinction
has not been felt for 66 million years.
Now we're on track
for the sixth.
In the last 50 years alone,
wildlife populations have fallen
by an average of almost 70%,
and this time,
we are the ones responsible.
And yet despite this grim forecast,
there remains a glimmer of hope.
[gentle, optimistic music playing]
We are the first species
in the four-billion-year story of life
to understand
what is happening to our world.
We are also the first species
to understand
what is needed to put it right.
[ethereal vocalizing]
Our intelligence has brought us this far,
and it's the only thing that can save us.
Our future, and that of the planet,
is yet to be written.
How we act now
will determine the next chapter
[baby gurgling]
in the story of life.
- [echoing crash]
- [water dripping]
- [music fades]
- [thunder rumbling]
But whatever future awaits
[ominous music playing]
if there's one thing
we've learned from the past
it's that life has always found a way.
[eerie music playing]
[birds tweeting]
[tweeting growing louder]
[eerie music intensifies]
[music fades]
[rousing music playing]
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