It used to be that I watched nature documentaries to relax. No matter what was going on in my life, an hour on the plains of the Serengeti or following migrating humpbacks to Ningaloo Reef was a salve. In recent years, though, such films have come freighted with their own anxieties, largely centred around the effects of climate change on the natural world, and our general failure to responsibly steward the planet Earth.
The high (or low, depending on your point of view) mark surely came with David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet, when the great naturalist mapped out how the world had been decimated only in his lifetime. The documentary series Arctic Secrets occupies similar territory, by turns awing us with scenes of astonishing beauty and abundant, exotic life, and then making us aware of the peril facing all this wonder.
As the title suggests, the series takes as its purview everything north of the 60th parallel, a huge area encompassing the territory of eight nations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. It’s a visually stunning, awe-inspiring land: sweeping tundra, looming glaciers, calving icebergs, icy waters. But although greenery is scarce, it’s far from barren; the Arctic teems with life, especially in the summer months when migratory species head north: polar bears, musk oxen, seals, caribou, orcas, wolves and more roam this vast expanse, locked in a delicate web of predator/prey relationships.
But that web is being stretched, and sometimes even broken, in surprising and sobering ways. Although these areas are thinly populated - Arctic Secrets introduces us to Inuit seal hunters stalking the iced-over seas, and scientific researchers investigating ice loss, but few more beside – the effects of humancentric climate change are marked. Early on, footage of polar bears raiding cliffside bird nests for food because they can’t find their traditional prey is, to coin a phrase, chilling. Later, the series maps out how warmer summers have led to a massive increase in the Arctic’s mosquito population, which sounds like more of a nuisance than a threat – but a cloud of mosquitoes can drain a litre of blood in an hour from a caribou, and that can be fatal for a calf.
Arctic Secrets takes a holistic approach to its subject, encompassing the natural world, the Indigenous peoples of the region, the history of European exploration in the frozen north, and ongoing scientific efforts to understand and preserve the area. But the immediate threat of ecological disaster cannot be avoided, and the series makes clear the alarming issues the Arctic faces. At one point we venture with a team of researchers to see the underside of a glacier, a frozen crystalline cavern that looks for all the world like something out of a fairy tale. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, but one can’t help but marvel at how fragile it is, and how long it might last unless we as a species take urgent action to curb the effects our civilisation has on such places.
Arctic Secrets is a fascinating, thoroughly engrossing documentary series, taking us into a rarely glimpsed world of natural wonder. But it also reminds us of how much we have to lose, making plain that even the most remote and inaccessible places on Earth are at risk.
See series 1 and 2 of Arctic Secrets on NITV from 6.30pm Tuesday, 4 January at 6.30pm, with following episodes screening weeknights January 5-13. The series is also screening at 10am from Wednesday 5 January. Check the TV Guide for more details.
Start with episode 1: