Metro Weekly

In “The Year Earth Changed,” while humans sheltered away, nature came out to play

Sir David Attenborough narrates nature's stunning response after COVID-19 forced humanity indoors

The Year Earth Changed: Deer
The Year Earth Changed — Photo: Apple TV+

Most noticeable at first was the silence. As COVID-19 lockdowns blanketed 2020, the conspicuous quiet of people no longer commuting, flying, careening, and crowding all over the planet must have been music to Mother Nature’s ears.

According to the captivating BBC Studios documentary The Year Earth Changed, it didn’t take long for birds, bees, and other wild things to adapt their behaviors to the sudden shift in the environment. Undoubtedly the earth breathed a sigh of relief, and the natural world blossomed with the possibilities of life on this planet without human activity constantly stinking up the joint.

Director Tom Beard and an international crew of filmmakers shot footage across five continents that tells the story of “nature’s extraordinary response” to the shutdown that left streets and roads empty, airplanes grounded, cruise ships docked, and public buildings and attractions closed. Sparrows living near the usually bustling Golden Gate Bridge fill the quiet with bright new songs. A small herd of sika deer in Nara, Japan, accustomed to relying on tourists at a temple for handouts, trek through town to find their ancestral grazing grounds.

Humpback whales in an Alaskan bay can feed in peace, without dodging the titanic cruise ships that carry a million visitors through their home waters every year. Scientists record the whales enjoying apparently more “elaborate and productive” conversations across greater distances. What once was like trying to chat with a friend inside a crowded bar is, under these more peaceful circumstances, like conversing in a quiet coffee shop, observes whale researcher Dr. Suzie Teerlink.

The 50-minute film, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, provides an insightful measure of mankind’s environmental impact by showing staggering changes brought about during our “absence.” Los Angeles enjoys its best air quality in 40 years, and, for the first time in 30 years, the Himalayas are visible from nearby Jalandhar, India. Loggerhead turtles on Juno Beach, Florida, safe from being trampled by beachgoers, lay more eggs than they have in a decade. The suggestion that the natural world could benefit from less of whatever it is we’ve been doing comes through loud and clear.

Anyone who misses the message should pay close attention to the animals around a safari resort in South Africa, who, within a few months of quarantine, reclaim the space for flora and fauna. Monkeys, impala, and antelope take over the hotel and grounds, with a roaming leopard the undisputed new master of the domain. Watching the big cat loll about the bamboo terraces and landscaped lawns, he looks right at home, ready to move in permanently at the earliest sign of vacancy.

The Year Earth Changed is available for streaming starting April 16 on Apple TV+. Visit tv.apple.com.

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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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