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Weather has always been one of the most dynamic and complex forces shaping our planet. But as global average temperatures have risen, our weather has begun to intensify; once-in-a-lifetime events are now increasingly common. This means both longer droughts and more powerful storms. More snow falls in one part of the globe while elsewhere there is growing danger from hurricanes. These events are interconnected in complex ways and scientists are racing to better understand them.
The tidewater glaciers of South-eastern Alaska feature ice and ocean water interacting directly on a massive scale and may be some of the fasting-melting bodies of ice in the world. National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dr. Erin Pettit leads a young team of researchers into the dangerous splash zone at the face of Dawes Glacier aboard a boat custom-designed to get as close as possible to the calving ice. Using a variety of instruments, her team measures the rate of ice melt to help build a more accurate model of global ocean level rise. Climbing steep cliffs, braving tsunami-sized shock waves, and working on a boat with icebergs crumbling overhead while others shoot up from below the surface, her team leads us through a spectacular landscape of light and water in all its forms.
With less polar ice there is less reflection of solar heat back into space, causing oceans to warm even faster. This adds deadly power to hurricanes and may also be changing the nature of tornados. In the Great Plains of the United States, Oklahoma native Justin Walker is a researcher trying to place pods of sensors inside tornados, part of an attempt to determine if global climate change is increasing the severity of outbreaks. Working with driver Herb Stein, Justin navigates the farm roads of the Heartland to get his instruments in direct contact with one of the most destructive forces on the planet. Justin’s drive to understand tornados began as a child, when his father’s misguided attempt to protect the family from an approaching tornado almost cost them their lives. Justin is now a firm believer that the more we understand the science of extreme weather, the more we can minimize the danger to ourselves.
As temperatures change and storm patterns shift, many areas around the world are experiencing more severe draughts. A decade of little rain in the mountains of California has caused the death of huge swaths of pine forest; that dry timber is now adding to the size and ferocity of regional forest fires. The film follows firefighters into the infernos, at times through smoke so thick it looks like night and so shockingly close to the heat that out-of-control flames lick at the lens. The firefighters use heavy machinery to remove dead trees and brush on the fire lines while planes and helicopters mobilize. Yet the fire grows so explosively a crew is nearly trapped on a high forest ridge.
The ash from these wildfires can travel all the way to the poles, landing on ice and darkening it. The darker ice absorbs more heat and melts faster. This is one of the feedback loops we need to better understand as it helps accelerate the shifts in our climate, so we can better prepare ourselves for the even more extreme weather ahead.