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Nova: Earth From Space

(PBS; US DVD: 30 Apr 2013; UK DVD: Import)

Nova’s Earth From Space is a 2two-hour PBS program that uses computer imaging, satellite data, and a fair amount of Hollywood-style special effects to illuminate previously unknown phenomena about our planet, utilizing data provided by orbiting satellites and presenting it in a uniquely appealing way. It’s a terrific program for anyone interested in climate, earth sciences or the natural world in general, and it’s likely to expand the worldview of even the most casual viewer. With its snappy pace and stylish graphics, the show is designed to appeal to just about anyone who can sit still long enough to absorb it—which, ideally, would be just about anybody.


The show’s premise is that an orbital view of Earth can reveal formerly invisible and unthought-of processes. Kicking off with an exploration of climate, Earth From Space focuses on how different areas of the planet absorb or reflect sunlight, and therefore heat. These patterns of absorption and reflection can have dire effects, as when equatorial heat leads to massive amounts of evaporation, resulting in hurricanes and other tropical storms—and with the microwave sensors of today’s satellites, the internal structure of such storms can now be read in three dimensions, or as one expert puts it, “Like a CAT scan of a hurricane.”


Earth From Space never lingers too long on any one concept, swiftly moving from idea to idea while keeping a global perspective which is entirely appropriate to the subject. The distribution of water vapor has profound effects on our local geography, as do patterns of wind and water that ensure the poles will remain frozen and desolate; underwater tectonic activity results in an explosion of microscopic life; patterns of Antarctic ice formation result in an enormous river of brine responsible for regulating the temperature of the oceans, and hence, to a large extent, the entire world.


In a particularly fascinating segment, fossilized plankton in the Sahara Desert—one of the most arid places on the planet—are shown to fertilize the Amazon basin, thousands of miles away and perhaps the most fecund place on Earth. The program explores such interconnected patterns (and others) swiftly but thoroughly before moving along to the next, ensuring that the proceedings never get bogged down.


Nova can always be counted on for a few jaw-dropping facts, for example that four thousand earthquakes occur on planet Earth every day. My favorite statistic from this show: if the spectrum of light were considered to be a line stretching from New York to Los Angeles, then the visible spectrum—the light that human beings can see, and from which they get most of their information about the world—would be “about the size of a dime.” Much of the information collected by the orbiting satellites mentioned in this program is culled from sources such as infrared and ultraviolet light, wavelengths that are invisible to human beings. Tapping such sources reveals much that was previously unknown about our world.


Occasional talking-head interviews appear almost as if expected by the conventions of documentary, but they do little to add substance or illuminate the already-substantial narration. In fact, these brief interjections often simply restate what the narration has just told us. There are some exceptions to this, but overall the scientists and researchers interviewed here add little to the narrative.


The images, on the other hand, are striking: Earth is a beautiful planet after all, and some views will never get old: swirling clouds and raging storms, illuminated nighttime cities, an emerald-green plankton bloom off the coast of South America. Besides these are previously unseen images, such as a map of the ocean floor accurate to within half an inch, and a reconstruction of the rise and fall of Italy’s Mount Etna as it builds to an eruption. The blu-ray edition is probably worth the expense, as the extra clarity and detail are truly eye-popping. Time-lapse photography and perspectives from the microscopic to the high-altitude add further levels of visual interest. There are no bonus features on either the DVD or blu-ray edition, so the viewer will need to be contented with the program itself.


Such contentment is likely, at least for anyone with any interest at all in natural history or even an informal, science-informed travelogue. With locations taken from all seven continents and most of the seas, this truly world-spanning and mind-expanding documentary is well worth watching.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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