Our Planet – Behind The Lens

This is a guest feature from Protect Our Winters UK, a charity aimed at educating and empowering outdoors enthusiasts to take action against climate change. Join POW UK.

Ryan Atkinson, a wildlife cameraman, shares his unique perspective from behind the lens of Netflix’s Our Planet series.

Today we have become the greatest threat to the health of our home but there’s still time for us to address the challenges we’ve created, if we act now. We need the world to pay attention.” 

Sir David Attenborough’s words at the global launch for Netflix’s new ‘Our Planet’ series could not be more poignant, and more time critical. 

As a wildlife cameraman, and one of the 600-strong crew behind the making of Our Planet, my job takes me to some of the most far-flung and remote parts of our world, affording me a first hand view of global ecology enjoyed by only a small number of people. Yet, as the years go by, this first hand experience has undoubtedly become less enjoyable and exponentially more alarming. 

Filming inside a melting glacier in the south of Iceland. Photo credit: Ryan Atkinson
Filming inside a melting glacier in the south of Iceland. Photo credit: Ryan Atkinson

When I was first approached to be involved in the filming of Our Planet, the prospects of working on a large budget nature documentary with a clear drive to communicate the dangers facing our environment and the animals living within it was exciting. Whilst I’ll be the first to jump to the defence of the BBC – the envy of broadcasters around the world – the chance to be involved in a documentary free from the politics and challenges faced by public broadcasters in tackling difficult messages was an opportunity not to be missed. However the excitement of being involved in something truly ground-breaking soon become intertwined with a realisation of the very real, and very immediate risks Our Planet faces. 

I remember one shoot in particular in Yellowstone National Park, USA. We’d gone out in the midst of winter to film bobcats. A further exploration on their hunting strategy originally explored in Planet Earth II, we planned to film these cats as they stalked the rivers of the park interior.

During the depths of winter, most of the waterways in the park freeze over and so the bobcats have adapted to make use of the geothermal activity in the area, exploiting the thermal rivers that stay open in even the coldest of winters as a magnet for wildlife in need of freshwater. The bobcats have taken to hunting ducks along the edges of these still flowing waterways.

However, despite the stunning visuals scattered across the episodes of Our Planet, not all shoots were successful. Largely due to the unprecedented warm temperatures of that particular mid winter – we arrived in the park to find the rivers melting and snowpack thinning… in February. The bobcats had retreated into the interior of the park as the duck population had spread, and hunting became more sporadic and opportunistic as the cats had to tackle the thick snow and sparse density of prey without the reprieve of a focal point like the thermal rivers. We went home empty handed, with barely 5 minutes of footage shot, none of which could be used In the film.

This was one of my first shoots for Our Planet, in early 2015, and it’s stuck with me since. As snow sports athletes, we’re already aware of the impact that warming global temperatures are having on our winters. However this shoot gave me pause for thought. It highlighted to me, in a very real way, that whilst warmer winters might be beginning to have an impact on my enjoyment of the season, they were already having a very profound impact on the survival of ecosystems around the world. Life is at stake and this is not a game. 

A fox hunting for its prey through the thinning snowpack.
Photo credit: Ryan Atkinson
A fox hunting for its prey through the thinning snowpack of Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone experiences roughly three months more per year of above freezing temperatures than 25 years ago, with a significant decline in annual snowfall across 70% of the park.
Photo credit: Ryan Atkinson

As my work on the series progressed, we went from extreme to extreme.

I’ve seen Lions starving in the plains of Africa as mass drought has led to aggressive irrigation practices, the damming of rivers, and the desiccation of entire national parks. (Episode 7: Freshwater). I’ve watched over the years as each visit to the rainforests of Borneo has revealed the relentless advance of palm oil plantations into the national park boundaries, and the horrifying sight of an invisible glass wall extending ever upwards and separating the living, breathing mists of the rainforest from the quiet stillness and lifelessness of the plantations. (Episode 3: Jungles). 

Palm Oil plantations across Borneo. Photo credit: Ryan Atkinson
Palm Oil plantations across Borneo. Only half of Borneo’s primary rainforest cover remains today, down from 75% in the mid 1980s. A further 25.1 million hectares are likely to be lost by 2020. Photo credit: Ryan Atkinson

As people who spend our years travelling the world to draw attention to both its beauty and its hostility, wildlife filmmakers are only too aware of the change our planet is facing. Melting ice caps, massive drought, and the very real experience of a new wave of mass extinction have in our life time moved from distant threats to present realities.

Over 60% of vertebrate species have disappeared in the last 50 years and yet as populations around the world still consider climate change to be a distant threat to their own backyard, there’s been a feeling for some time that as an industry we need to do a better job of communicating these threats.

How can we expect people to act, if they can’t see?

It’s all very well and good appealing to individuals enjoyment of their annual snow-sports holiday; the difficulties of dodging rocks on the pistes and skiing through spring snow in January. However, unless people see the extreme and immediate threat to our planet for what it is, can we really expect them to change behaviour patterns ingrained over generations and accept a hit to their wallet as a necessity of a global shift in attitude towards our climate and way of life?

This is our home. We only have one of them.

As Attenborough urgently states, ‘We need the world to pay attention.’

Hopefully now, they will at least start. 

Take a look at the POW Mountain to see how you can take action against climate change.

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