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Blue Planet II is an environmental emergency disguised as a nature documentary

 “The health of our oceans is under threat. They’re changing at a faster rate than ever before in human history.”

A year on from the successes of Planet Earth II, the BBC’s naturalist-in-chief Sir David Attenborough returns with Blue Planet II – a series four years in the making that dares to take its viewers into the uncharted frontiers of the oceans.

Significant advances in technology since 2001 when The Blue Planet aired, Attenborough tells us, means “we can enter new worlds and shine a light on behaviours in ways that were impossible just a generation ago.”

Low-light cameras are deployed to film mobula rays in a fantasia-like dance with bioluminescent-blue plankton in the Mexican Sea of Cortez. Suction cameras offer a “giant’s-eye-view” of the ocean. Armed with this technology, the filming crew's 6,000 hours spent submerged have successfully unveiled phenomena of the seas previously unseen.

Although the series has been accused of dishonesty for creating a few scenes under lab conditions, the vast majority of what is seen onscreen is the result of tireless work by the production team to bring us - the viewers - closer to marine life than we have ever been. This is of course something that the Into The Blue behind-the-scenes clips at the tail end of each episode serve to remind us of (the first instalment of this segment sees the production team ride 20ft waves on jet skis to swim and film alongside dolphins on the coast of South Africa).

However, the more pressing concern for Attenborough, the “uncomfortable fact”, recognised and raised in the opening moments of episode one is this: “The health of our oceans is under threat. They’re changing at a faster rate than ever before in human history.”

The first three episodes of Blue Planet II take us across oceans, sea floors and coral reefs, while offering glimpses into the lives of sea creatures both familiar and alien. On Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, we meet a determined little tusk fish that has learned to use coral as a tool; in the underwater forests of northern Japan, we witness a female kobudai change gender; in the twilight zone, a sea of “eternal gloom” 200m down in the Pacific, strange creatures appear such as the barreleye – a deep-sea fish with a transparent head filled with jelly so that it can look above.

But it is here, in the furthest reaches of the ocean, that Attenborough’s concerns become apparent. The second episode introduces us to Venus’s flower basket, a delicate, translucent white sponge that lives at the bottom of the sea. It hosts shrimps that use the sponge as a protective nest, hatching and dispersing their larvae through the flower basket’s walls. It’s a symbiotic marvel which is soon overshadowed by Attenborough’s commentary: “But today, their timeless world is being reduced to rubble.”

Overfishing has emptied the surface seas, leading trawlers to cast their nets far into the deep. According to the United Nations, fishing subsidies are accelerating the depletion of many of the ocean’s species, with “as much as 40 per cent of the world oceans” being devastated by human activities.

Blue Planet II documents the life of the deep blue greyed out, as a despondent Attenborough tells us “countless numbers of the reefs that have flourished for millennia lie in ruins”. When the very bedrock of the planet is tainted by the excessiveness of human consumption and activity, a moment of pause is needed.

In the latest episode to be aired, which focuses on coral reefs, a family of saddleback clownfish are searching for a sturdy item for their female leader to lay her eggs when they encounter an old plastic water bottle. It’s a fleeting moment in the series - the clownfish dismiss the solitary bottle as an inanimate, throwaway part of the reef debris. But with estimates of more than 5 trillion plastic pieces, “weighing over 250000 tons” afloat at sea, it isn’t difficult to see plastic minefields disrupting hundreds of thousands of underwater species.

The seas have not escaped the impact of global warming either. We are told in the same episode that half the world’s coral reefs have been affected by bleaching in recent years, including since 2016 “two thirds of the shallow water corals” on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Sustained increases in temperature cause coral polyps to eject plant-like cells that lead to the discolouring.

Lab footage of coral bleaching, which could only be filmed with careful lighting and cinematography, give us a close look at the future we could be facing – one in which coral reef life is left homeless after these “crowded submarine cities are reduced to bleak ruins” by human-driven climate change.

In the Arctic, ice has been reduced by 40 per cent in the last 30 years, with the walruses starring in Blue Planet II taking the hardest hit. In need of a safe retreat, these walruses can no longer rely on sheets of ice as sturdy resting spots and instead must fight for space on land or floating, diminutive rafts of ice.

These short moments interrupt the magic with serious reminders of the state of the planet’s waters. Last year’s Planet Earth II drew in viewers who marvelled at the beauty of animals living in and around our jungles, mountains and deserts. Blue Planet II’s first episode surpassed more than 14 million views, and the remaining episodes expected to follow suit. Yet its reflections on the relationship between humans and sealife subtly transform it from a classic nature documentary to an environmental one.

Of course, the series will bring light and wonder to its audience, with a Hans Zimmer score threading together stunning footage of surreal sealife. But when it is our very own actions that are damaging our oceans, the call to action is apparent.

Blue Planet II is on BBC1, Sundays 8pm. 

PHOTO: GETTY
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How Japan is preparing for the great flood

Experts fear Tokyo’s flood defences are not enough to avoid calamity.

Just north of Tokyo, a network of gigantic subterranean cisterns, tunnels and industrial engines helps to protect the world’s largest metropolitan area from extreme flooding – the threat of which is rising because of climate change. The system’s five cylindrical shafts can each accommodate a space shuttle, and the main tank, known as “the temple”, is held up by rows of 500-tonne pillars. Built at a cost of $2bn in 2006, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel sucks in water from swollen rivers and pumps it
out towards the ocean using the type of engines used in jet airliners.

The project has so far done its job in protecting the Tokyo area’s 38 million residents. But many experts fear the capital’s flood defences – which also include extensive underground reservoirs – are not enough to avoid calamity. Japan is being afflicted by ever stronger typhoons, and rainfall levels rise every year. In one river breach scenario, the government projects more than 6,000 deaths. “To be frank, these measures are not enough,” says Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, the former chief civil engineer of Tokyo’s flood-prone Edogawa ward.

Mayumi Ootani, who sells pots and pans and cigarettes from her shop, puts things more bluntly: “We’re living side-by-side with death.”

Calamitous flooding wrought by extreme weather is becoming an international menace, as shown last year in Texas, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In Tokyo, the threat is even greater because the city is already so vulnerable to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami.

Swiss Re, a reinsurer, described Tokyo and neighbouring Yokohama as the world’s riskiest metropolitan area in a 2014 study, citing extreme flooding as one of the perils. The Japan Meteorological Agency blames climate change for a 30 per cent rise in rainfall measuring more than two inches per hour – in what is already one of the world’s wettest cities. In recent times, Tokyoites have also been beset by man-made perils, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and North Korea’s recent threats to bring “nuclear clouds ” to Japan.

Such a confluence of worries might seem a recipe for mass-neurosis, or a flight to areas that do not lie on seismic or geopolitical fault lines. But  while Japan’s overall population declines due to low birth rates, Tokyo’s is still growing, with young people migrating from stagnant rural areas. Meanwhile, the city continues to build more and more skyscrapers – testament to Japan’s superlative earthquake-resistance technologies.

Even in the districts of Tokyo most at risk from floods and earthquakes, people tend to go about life with an optimism partly born of resignation. “I don’t go around worrying about it – if disaster comes, it comes,” says Toshio Miyata, who runs a tempura restaurant in a wood-framed home. “We Tokyoites don’t give a damn, whether it’s earthquake, fire or flooding. You can’t expect to fight with nature and win.”

Miyata runs his business in the Edogawa  ward – bordered and bisected by flood-prone rivers. It’s one of the areas that form what is known as the city’s shitamachi, or downtown, traditionally considered the authentic heart of Tokyo, where people are gruff, plain-spoken and on the hustle. It’s also the centre of so-called zero-metre zones that lie below sea level – and are doubly vulnerable because of the risk of inundation and buckling during quakes, a result of poor land quality. (One Edogawa resident described the ground beneath her home as “soft as tofu”.)

Yet it is precisely a centuries-old history of coping with disaster that explains how people here deal with the prospect, even likelihood, of natural calamity. “The consciousness that you may die in a natural disaster is something deeply-rooted among the Japanese,” says Kansai University disaster psychologist Tadahiro Motoyoshi. “There is a strong sense of the threat and the blessings of nature.”

Tsuchiya, the former Edogawa chief civil engineer, says these low-lying areas have been flooded at least 250 times in the past four centuries – causing countless deaths – but each time the survivors started over in the same place. Innovation came with the commitment to stay. Residents developed elevated structures called mizuya – literally “water houses” – where they could store necessities and escape to during flooding, as well as a sophisticated system of emergency boats that converted the submerged city into a floating one.

Engineering marvels such as the metropolitan discharge channel and a planned network of super-levees, more than 300 meters wide, are an extension of these early innovations.

Japan’s earthquake-resistance technologies also draw inspiration from the past. The Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower at 634 metres, completed in 2011, borrows from Japan’s traditional five-storey pagodas – which since medieval times have been resistant to the most powerful earthquakes. Skytree engineers adapted the pagoda’s central pole – called a shinbashira – that redistributes seismic vibrations to prevent collapse.

There is also a stock of resilience and community spirit that has managed to survive waves of rampant development and inward migration. Masanobu Namatame makes painted paper lanterns for traditional festivals. He squats on straw mats in his Edogawa workshop, carrying on a craft that has been handed down through generations. “The locals depend on me during festival time,” he says. “So I’m not thinking about running away.”

But the family business was not always in this location. During Namatame’s grandfather’s time it was in the more affluent Kojimachi district. Wartime air-raids that burned down the house forced the family to flee here with a few belongings on their backs.

“The bottom line is if some calamity happens you have to run,” says Namatame. “But until then you just stay put and get on with things.” 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist