NOVA Polar Extremes

Airs Tuesday, February 5 at 8 p.m. (Two Hour Special)


Polar Extremes Preview

-- In a New, Multimedia Experience, NOVA Takes Audiences Back in Time and Across the Globe to Uncover the Secrets of the Earth’s Poles --

Hosted by renowned paleontologist Kirk Johnson, the special takes viewers on a dramatic and surprising adventure from pole to pole and back in time—650 million years ago to present day—to uncover the extraordinary story of the Earth’s poles and their changing climates.

Of all the fresh water that exists on Earth today, 70% of it is frozen, held in glaciers and ice caps, most of it in the Arctic and Antarctic—but Earth wasn’t always like this. Hidden in the rocks and trapped under the ice are clues that reveal a planet totally different from the one we know today. Following a trail of strange fossils found in all the wrong places—beech trees in Antarctica, alligators in the Arctic—Johnson finds evidence that the Arctic was once covered in a subtropical forest and dinosaurs once lived near the South Pole. A journey to the hotDeath Valley desert uncovers rocks that could only get there by glacier, revealing another very different age, when ice sheets extended from pole to pole, turning the entire globe into a giant “snowball” Earth.

Featuring stunning footage from some of the most remote locations on the planet, combined with rich, 3D graphics of long-lost landscapes, POLAR EXTREMES immerses viewers in a scientific quest to explore the unexpected secrets of our planet’s polar past. Why were the North and South Poles virtually ice free for much of the last billion years? Which triggers turned a balmy “Hothouse” Earth—home to dinosaurs for more than 150 million years—into a frozen “Icehouse” landscape? What drives the poles to such extremes? And, can the stories of the past reveal what will happen to the poles—and the rest of our planet—in the future?

To search for answers, Johnson, the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, travels back in time to find out what the Arctic and the Antarctic would have looked like millions of years ago. This epic journey takes him to some of the most remote places on Earth, featuring polar expeditions, white water rafting, helicopters, goldmines, rappelling into glaciers, fossil digs and more.

“This is a truly eye-opening trip through time, because the poles not only changed in the past, they’re changing today,” says POLAR EXTREMES executive producer Julia Cort. “What forces were at work then, when the Arctic was a swamp or when Seattle was under three thousand feet of ice? And what’s happening now? POLAR EXTREMES gives us an incredible opportunity to find potential parallels to our present—and future—climate story.”

Johnson and climate scientist Maureen Raymo uncover one possible parallel in a quarry in Virginia, where a backhoe unearths a treasure trove of fossils: clams and scallops that populated a shoreline three million years ago. The shells look amazingly modern—but dramatically out of place, since the quarry is now located 90 miles inland. It turns out that at the time these creatures were alive, there was no ice in the Arctic, causing sea levels to be substantially higher, and pushing the coastline inland. Raymo points out that during that period, carbon dioxide levels—one of the main factors determining global temperature—were about the same as they are today.

In the past, long before humans arrived on the scene, greenhouse gasses that warmed the planet came from natural sources. Johnson visits an active volcano in Mammoth Lakes, California to capture the CO2 still seeping from the Earth. Today, much of the carbon emitted to the atmosphere comes from another source: the burning of fossil fuels. Johnson dramatically demonstrates just how much carbon we’re adding to the air with the help of a 1965 Rambler convertible, a bag of charcoal briquettes (representing what Johnson calls “car turds”) and some provocative computer graphics.

With the planet now rapidly warming, a trip to the Canadian Rockies with paleoclimatologist Jeremy Shakun is especially striking, as Shakun leads Johnson deep into a cave inside the permafrost. Shaped by our current “Icehouse,” the walls of one small cavern are coated with sparkling, otherworldly ice crystals. But hanging from the walls in a deeper part of the cave are stone stalactites, created hundreds of thousands of years ago by water running through the ground—when the planet was warmer and the ground there was not frozen. Shakun notes that today’s permafrost holds about twice as much carbon as is in our atmosphere. If the permafrost thaws across all the frozen land at the Polar Extremes, a massive release of methane and CO2 will speed up global warming all over the planet—creating an unprecedented threat to humanity.

POLAR EXTREMES shows that the Earth’s distant past is directly relevant to our collective future. “Humans are geology, and we are impacting this planet,” says Johnson. “This is the first time that a mammal has actually changed the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and driven a dramatic change in the Earth’s climate. The question is, are we clever enough and forward-thinking enough to flip that switch back?”

POLAR EXTREMES is a NOVA production by Windfall Films, Ltd. for WGBH Boston. Executive Producer and Director for Windfall Films is David Dugan. Producer and Director for Windfall Films is Lucy Haken. Executive Producer for NOVA is Julia Cort. Series Co-Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.


POLAR EXTREMES doesn’t stop after the film. In addition to the two-hour broadcast, NOVA will be releasing a suite of digital content that continues the story, including a 10-part digital series exploring what it’s like to live and work in Antarctica, short-form videos, web articles, social media content and the NOVA Polar Lab, a web-based game that will challenge players to explore the climate history of the poles using real data. A true multimedia experience, POLAR EXTREMES will offer our audience a wide and exciting variety of engaging content to explore, across multiple platforms, early next year.

NOVA will also engage science educators by producing educational resources from POLAR EXTREMES broadcast and digital content that will be distributed on PBS LearnIngMedia—bringing climate science education into classrooms around the country. Finally, a POLAR EXTREMES public screening campaign, in collaboration with science museums, will invite community conversations about the climate record and our future in the face of global climate change.


As Johnson globetrots to dig up the hidden history of our poles, stretching back millions of years, a companion digital series explores the extreme challenges of polar research today. Hosts Caitlin Saks and Arlo Perez set up shop at the largest research base in Antarctica, and embed with scientists and support staff alike to discover what it’s like to live, work and do science from our southernmost continent. Fun, quirky and at times deeply personal, Saks and Perez reveal the true Antarctica: a land where science and survival intersect. They join researchers to investigate curious topics such as the secret to seal pup survival, the mystery of a blood-red glacier and the interplanetary space probe that might offer clues to how fast Antarctica will contribute to sea level rise. As they explore magnificent locations—from the depths of an ice caveto the peak of an active Antarctic volcano—they reveal the trials and triumphs of life at the bottom of the world. What do you eat? What is it like to be disconnected from civilization? How do you stay warm? And, of course, what do they do with all the poop?! Through 10 eight to 15-minute episodes, Saks and Perez reveal a world that is sometimes harsh, sometimes hilarious, sometimes gross and sometimes simply breathtaking. The digital series will premiere in January 2020 on all of NOVA’s digital platforms.


Students will be able to explore the science of POLAR EXTREMES in a free, interactive, game-based NOVA Polar Lab. The latest installment in the popular NOVA Labs platform for middle and high school students, the Polar Lab will use interviews with scientists, 360 videos and other media to send players on an immersive quest to understand how the poles are key to understanding Earth’s climate—past, present and future. And because students gather and analyze the evidence themselves—with a bit of help, of course—the Polar Lab will foster the kind of active learning increasingly favored by educators.


National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS viewers.

Funding for Polar Extremes is provided by the National Science Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the George D. Smith Fund, The Kendeda Fund and the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1713552. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.