No natural history programme can, or should, be made these days without the climate crisis as a looming subtext at the very least. Chris Packham’s confidently grand new series Earth, a guide to “five pivotal moments” in the planet’s history, might look like an exception, since its first episode is set 252 million years ago. But unfathomably distant as that is, it is painfully relevant because of what happened at the close of the Permian period: Earth grew warmer, ending life as it existed then.
A volcanic eruption, a thousand times greater than any ever seen by humans, covered one percent of Earth’s only land mass, Pangea, with liquid fire and released four million cubic kilometres of lava, greenhouse gas and ash. Mass extinction followed: Packham, squatting nimbly by a cliff face, demonstrates it by hammering a lump out of a thin seam of coal, left there when a lot of organic matter died suddenly. Then he chips at the rock above, finding it to be smooth and featureless, a relic of a time when nothing died because not much had survived.
Packham has evolved from a domestic nerd on Springwatch, parting foliage to reveal a vole, into a big-name presenter who can carry the sort of planet-sized show that would once have relied on David Attenborough. Earth is keen to have an epic sweep – which, in a BBC era of slashed budgets and hostile scrutiny, is not straightforward. Fail to present enough fresh footage showing the presenter and the programme looks like a Powerpoint presentation. Too far the other way – flying to Mauritius or the Galapagos to film next to lush vegetation or azure seas, when a bought-in shot would suffice – and it is seen as a holiday at licence-payers’ expense.
Packham strikes a wise balance, having discovered that the Canary Islands contain an eclectic enough array of landscapes for almost a whole episode. A trip round the beaches, dunes and groves of the Canaries, with Packham looking sharp in a brown Fred Perry polo buttoned right up, plus a jaunt to Italy – in taupe Fred Perry, buttoned right up – does the job. Stock footage of volcanoes, forests and desert is thriftily sprinkled in the gaps.
The result is a big story, sturdily told and with an eye for pertinent detail. Perhaps the most useful strand is about how not all the consequences of a cataclysm are obvious. After the surface eruptions stopped, magma that remained underground, not ostensibly incinerating any flora or fauna, burned up coal reserves that created yet more CO2, and set fire to salt that pumped halogens into the air, dissolving the ozone layer and subjecting pollen to mutations caused by unfiltered UV rays. Alternatively, it’s possible that pollen was bent out of shape by acid rain, but the point stands: one thing led to another and plants died en masse. Carbon dioxide, meanwhile, was reacting with the warming seas, deoxygenating them and encouraging the growth of algae that decomposed and poisoned the water. “Sulphurous tides lap barren shores,” Packham says with a nice curt lyricism, transporting us to the seaside a quarter of a billion years ago.
After the extinction, Earth had lost 70% of its land vertebrates and 96% of marine life. We won’t suffer anything on remotely that scale, but similar processes are observable. Off the coast of the Canary Islands, the warmer Atlantic waters enable an algae that is poisonous to dolphins to thrive. When dolphins eat the fish that ate the fish that ate the algae, they die.
It takes more than a catastrophic warming and all its nasty corollaries to kill a planet, though. In the Dolomites, a layer of sandstone is evidence of the weather event that followed the fiery terror: it rained and rained, and rained. New greenery grew, the Triassic period dawned. Packham puts his hand in a dinosaur footprint, expressing the same child-like glee as when he goes dolphin-spotting.
At the end of the hour, Packham seems to realise that he has given succour to fatalist cynics who say hey, the world has seen warming worse than this. His thesis is that extinction boosts evolution; losing most of the life on Earth enabled everything we know now to exist. A quick speech about having “all of that suffering” on our conscience if we plough on with our answer to the Great Dying feels like an afterthought. But for the majority of us, who are rightly terrified and don’t need a pep talk on why collapsing ecosystems are bad, Packham has added another layer to our understanding – and his status as a great nature presenter is starting to be set in stone.
• This article was amended on 18 July 2023. The volcanic eruption on Pangea released four million cubic kilometres of lava, gas and ash, not four million cubic metres as an earlier version said.