Narrated by actor Jeremy Irons, Life on Fire paints a detailed picture of the struggles and amazing adaptations required to survive around volcanoes, some of the most spectacular and powerful forces on our planet. The six episodes that are part of this series include spectacular scenery that provides the backdrop for the extraordinary animals and plants that have learned to juggle their existence with their fiery surroundings. Fragile and engaging, these creatures teach survival lessons in parts of the world that are as fascinating as they are dangerous.
Producer Bertrand Loyer says the making of Life on Fire was not only physically dangerous, but also technically bracing. Filming in and near a series of the globe's most active volcanoes presented the production crew with significant challenges. To capture these impressive natural wonders, Loyer and his team adapted a super-powered filming application (developed by the CIA to see Earth-bounded details as small as a license plate from outer space) to maintain safe distances from erupting volcanoes, while also homing in on specific details of the eruption in action. Loyer says the crew encountered eruptions from much closer distances too, dodging spewed rocks the size of trucks in an effort to film birds and animals. When asked why life around volcanoes makes for good dramatic television, Loyer says the science behind eruption prediction has advanced to such a degree that the arc of an eruption can be captured beginning to end.
Life of Fire is divided into six episodes:
Icelandic Volcanoes: The eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland provoked vast economic chaos by paralyzing one of the world's major air traffic networks for several days. This eruption, however, was mild. Much more powerful volcanoes are now ready to wake up in Iceland. Through spectacular aerial footage of this country, which is an accumulation of lava and ash, a maze of craters and faults, the episode tries to discern which volcano could awaken next and what the consequences of a major eruption are likely to be. Europe has come to realize that a colossal power sleeps beneath Iceland, but Icelanders for centuries have learned to live amongst their volcanoes.
Volcano Doctors: The Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Chile, and Iceland, are each home to active volcanoes that are a threat to the populations settled at their feet. Everyday, lava, ash, gas, bombs and avalanches are likely to slide down the gaping mouths of the rock giants. To avoid disasters, volcanologists are asked to be prophets who can anticipate and warn, and who can also analyze the volcanoes' slightest tremors. Around the world, these volcano doctors use their tools and knowledge to try to protect those who live beneath the Earth's fire.
The Surprise Salmon: In Alaska, the fresh water that feeds the rivers is snowmelt from North America's highest mountains and most active volcanoes. Time and again, they erupt and poison the rivers. Scientists have only just begun to piece together what might have happened nearly 2,000 years ago, when one race of salmon faced the death of their natal river and were forced back to the open ocean on an exceptional adventure. Navigating between the sulphurous waters, bears, sharks and eagles, the fish escaped the Earth's wrath to give birth to descendants that continue their pioneering journey to the heart of an active volcano.
Phoenix Temple: Around the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua, life has struggled for thousands of years to re-emerge from the ashes. Underground, vampire and other bat species have colonized the miles of tunnels created by hot flowing magma. In the crater, once filled by a giant lava lake, parakeets and vultures have made their nests on cliffs exposed to toxic gases. On the flanks of this still active mountain, the vegetation has been burnt away by lava flows leaving long barren stretches that are recolonized over hundreds of years, beginning with the lowly lichen and ending in flourishing forest. At the foot of the volcano, fields, pastures and towns have now grown over the oldest lava flows.
Ash Runners: On the volcanic island of New-Britain off the coast of Papua New Guinea, a handful of animals both airborne and Earth-bound have learned to live with the Earth's moods. When ash from a volcanic eruption invades these creatures' habitats, their choice is simple: leave, or stay and adapt. In truth, it's not that easy, as volcanoes and their actions are unpredictable, and each creature -- from the majestic Priamus butterfly to the flying fox -- responds in its own way.
Pioneers of the Deep: In the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean, tectonic movements construct or destroy islands. In the Tongan archipelago, two little-known animals have learned to cope with these ephemeral lands raised from the ocean depths: the sooty tern, a seabird that never dares wet its wings for fear of drowning, and the Alvin shrimp, a blind crustacean that manages to find its way around the abyss. When an underwater volcano becomes an island, the fates of these two extraordinary paradoxes are linked.
It has been going on for thousands of years, the ancient rite of wolves hunting buffalo. But with the virtual extinction of these two species from the North American plains during the continent's westward expansion, there is just one place left where the timeless battle continues uninterrupted: in Northern Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park. The centuries-old struggle of life and death between the continent's largest land mammal and its longtime predator and why both have survived are revealed in Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo.
Straddling the province of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, Canada's largest park – five times the size of Yellowstone National Park – was established in 1922 to protect the free-roaming buffalo herds. It's here that wildlife filmmaker Jeff Turner, equipped with the addition of an aerial camera, was first able to capture a wolf hunt from beginning to end in the remote wilderness. Having this airborne advantage was a great help to Turner, given that a wolf pack can often range more than 30 miles a day to find prey to hunt. They can run for hours waiting for a chance to make a kill, but the buffalo also have amazing endurance, even the calves. Turner says he's witnessed chases that have gone on for 20 miles.
Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo begins in winter when the wolf pack is most visible and working as a cohesive unit, traveling and hunting together. Turner is following an average-sized pack of about eight wolves led by a large alpha male. A wolf pack can best be described as a family with the alpha wolves, the father and mother wolf, being the leaders and most of its members their offspring of various ages. For the pack to survive, its leaders must provide food and security as well as teach their young to hunt buffalo. The goal is to try to kill one every week or so, despite the buffalo's 20-1 advantage in size over the wolf.
Buffalo are ideally suited for winter and so well insulated that snow lying on their massive bodies doesn't even melt. But the deep snow of winter poses a problem for them when they are being chased by a pack of wolves; the buffalo have to break trail, which tires them faster than their predators. The aerial camera documents the time-honored hunting strategies employed by the wolves and the evasive tactics of the buffalo, which start with the pack trying to get the herd to run so the wolves attack from behind. The buffalo hold their ground and face the wolves in standoffs that can often last for days, but eventually they start running, with the pack in hot pursuit trying to break up the herd.
Scattering through the bush is another buffalo tactic, which causes wolves to split up. But the large alpha male sets his sights on a yearling calf and, in a risky maneuver, stops and wounds the 600-pound animal. The large alpha then steps back and waits for the calf to die. The filmmaker remarks, "I never realized until now that one wolf could bring down a buffalo. It's remarkable what a strong and determined leader can do for his pack." The spring and summer pose more challenges to the pack than to the herd, with an alpha female giving birth to pups who need to be fed and their den defended. This means there are fewer opportunities to roam in search of prey and, sadly, most pups die of starvation at this time.
Although the buffalo calves make for easier targets, the mothers are extremely protective of their young and sometimes hide in the forest to make it harder for the wolves to isolate a single calf. If the pups survive and grow bigger, they'll leave their den in autumn and join the pack as the hunting cycle continues. Turner concludes that the biggest challenge to the wolves is not the strength of their leaders, but whether their ancient habitat will remain remote enough with the Alberta Oil Sands, the world's third largest crude oil reserve, directly upstream from Wood Buffalo National Park.
Nova: Earth from Space is a groundbreaking two-hour program that reveals a spectacular new space-based vision of our planet. Produced in extensive consultation with NASA scientists, it features data from Earth-observing satellites that's been transformed into dazzling visual sequences. Each sequence exposes the intricate and surprising web of forces that sustains life on Earth. Witness how dust blown from the Sahara fertilizes the Amazon; how a vast submarine waterfall off Antarctica helps drive ocean currents around the world; and how the sun's heating up of the southern Atlantic gives birth to a colossally powerful hurricane.
From the microscopic world of water molecules vaporizing over the ocean to the magnetic field that is bigger than Earth itself, Earth from Space reveals the astonishing beauty and complexity of our dynamic planet.
Now in its 40th season, NOVA is the most-watched prime time science series on American television, reaching an average of five million viewers weekly. The series remains committed to producing in-depth science programming in the form of hour-long (and occasionally longer) documentaries, from the latest breakthroughs in technology to the deepest mysteries of the natural world. NOVA airs Wednesdays at 9pm ET/PT on WGBH Boston and most PBS stations. The Director of the WGBH Science Unit and Senior Executive Producer of NOVA is Paula S. Apsell.
Funding for NOVA is provided by David H. Koch Fund For Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and public television viewers.