Legend Sir David looks for a ‘Perfect Planet’

Sunday: A Perfect Planet; (BBC One, 8pm)
Sir David AttenboroughSir David Attenborough
Sir David Attenborough

It orbits at the optimum distance from the Sun; tilts at just the right angle; and has a decent sized Moon to hold it in place.

On top of that, the day-to-day workings of the planet serve to nurture animals and plants. For instance, while a global weather system circulates and distributes fresh water to all corners, and a cycle of marine currents delivers nutrients to the deepest reaches of the ocean. As a result, there is literally no corner of our planet where life can’t be found. You could say that the conditions of Earth are not just good for life, they are ‘perfect’.

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This new series, narrated by David Attenborough, shows how the living planet operates and how the forces of nature – volcanoes, weather, ocean currents and solar energy – drive, shape and support Earth’s spectacular biodiversity.

The opening edition looks at the influence of volcanoes, which are responsible for both our breathable atmosphere and our oceans. Mineral-rich ash from regular eruptions fertilise the land, and volcanoes are the ‘architects of the planet’ – more than 80 per cent of the Earth’s surface is the result of magma rising from its molten interior.

Although volcanoes are destructive, even the most formidable of them can support life. Ol Donyo Lengai in Tanzania is one of Africa’s most active volcanoes, yet it’s responsible for the continent’s greatest wildlife spectacle. On Lengai’s northern flank is Lake Natron, one of the world’s most corrosive bodies of water, but when conditions are right, it becomes a gathering place for two million lesser flamingos. Female land iguanas in the Galapagos take advantage of what volcanoes have to offer, and every year, nearly 2,000 of these lizards make the 10-day trek from the coast to the top of La Cumbre, Fernandina Island’s active volcano, from where they descend the precipitous slopes to the crater floor.

Once at the bottom, they lay their eggs in the soft, warm ash, which is the perfect temperature for incubation. Volcanic islands make up just five per cent of the planet’s land, but they are home to nearly 20 per cent of its species. On the tiny island of Wolf in the Galapagos, a group of castaway finches have overcome limited food and water by feeding on the blood of the seabirds that roost and breed there. It’s an adaptation that has turned them into the Galapagos’s aptly named vampire finches.

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Not only are volcanoes the planet’s most powerful force, they are also the most dangerous. Several times in earth’s history volcanic activity has brought about a major change in our atmosphere – resulting in mass extinctions. Yet, as this programme reveals there would be no life without them, and for the last 10,000 years the amount of carbon they release has kept our planet warm and ‘perfectly’ stable.

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