The Year Earth Changed shows the unexpected byproduct of the pandemic — and suggests a way out of our current environmental predicament.

During the first lockdown, in March 2020, a video of dolphins carousing in the suddenly sparkling canals of Venice was seized upon with hope by those stuck at home. The video turned out to be fake but it’s undeniable that the global lockdown has given nature a reset.
Released ahead of Earth Day (April 22), the documentary The Year Earth Changed steps back to survey the consequences of the pandemic on the planet, offering a silver lining to a year many would rather forget.
The beloved British broadcaster David Attenborough, now 94, lends his velvety, statesmanlike voice to this BBC Natural History Unit special, which collects recent footage from South Africa to Alaska as researchers observe nature on the mend.
While Attenborough takes more of a back seat here than in earlier work like Planet Earth, this documentary continues his urgent, late-career focus on foregrounding the devastation brought about by humanity.
It’s a barely spoken about side of the pandemic that shifts in human behaviour have in turn affected the natural world, for the better. (Supplied: Apple TV+
We pick up in the first weeks of lockdown, as the reduced car traffic results in cleaner, quieter skies.
Air pollution clears in Jalandhar, India, where the snowy peaks of the Himalayas are visible for the first time in three decades. Birdsong rings out across San Francisco, where the white-crowned sparrow boosts its breeding season by adding new notes to its bright mating call.
Meanwhile, under the ice, the voices of migrating humpback whales echo further across Glacier Bay, no longer drowned out by the engines of hulking ocean liners.
People saw whales communicate in new ways over the course of the pandemic. (Supplied: Apple TV+
As weeks become months, marked by sound bites of politicians reminding residents to “stay at home”, lockdown offers scientists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the extent of human impact on animal behaviour, by simply taking us out of the picture.
We can use what we learn to re-evaluate and modify our habits, they argue, instead of mindlessly returning to how things once were in a pre-pandemic world.
The nesting success rate for Loggerhead sea turtles, for example, jumps from 40 to 61 percent, as they’re observed happily frequenting beaches in Florida that are normally clogged with holidaymakers and Spring Break partygoers.
“As the breeding season begins,” says Attenborough, over night vision video, “this female turtle is able to lay her eggs in peace, for the first time in her life.”
The silky white orbs plop out into the sand like candy from a dispenser, glowing with the promise of new life.
We don’t have to permanently close off the beaches, one researcher explains. But making a small change, like giving turtles exclusive access during the night, would have a dramatic effect.
“During this most difficult year, many people have reappraised the value and beauty of the natural world and taken great comfort from it,” David Attenborough said. (Supplied: Apple TV+
In last year’s deeply moving David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, wildlife were shown reclaiming the city of Chernobyl, which was abandoned after the tragic 1986 nuclear accident rendered it uninhabitable.
The recovery of land occurs on a global scale In The Year Earth Changed.
In Mpumalanga, a leopard turns an empty luxury resort into his own personal palace; in Cape Town, jackass penguins waddle through the city streets; and in Buenos Aires, “normally shy capybaras raid the manicured gardens of this well-heeled suburb, which has been built on their former wetland home”.
Attenborough can barely mask the glee in his voice.
The images are amusing, as well as comforting, playing out like an environmentalist’s fantastic vision for the redistribution of natural wealth.
Narrator David Attenborough said the global COVID lockdown has shown the impact humans have on nature.(Supplied: Apple TV+
Endangered animals get to play king for a day, instead of being forced to hide under the cover of night or pushed out to rapidly diminishing fringe spaces.
With a crew no doubt working under restricted conditions, the footage collected here can’t match the effervescent, inspiring images that elevated Attenborough’s canonical TV series; Planet Earth, for example, was shot over five years by 40 camera teams in more than 200 locations.
In place of such ambitious reach, there’s a dull reliance on drone shots that sweep over pristine, vacant urban streets, stadiums and piazzas images whose lack of any clear artistry or intuition at work further suggests the eerie absence of humans.
But there is hope, as the reemergence of wildlife proves that people’s actions can actually lead to positive change. (Supplied: Apple TV+
Nevertheless, shots like a school of whales throwing themselves skywards to devour thousands of fish will always be spectacular and the emotional uplift of such scenes is heightened by the lofty string score.
Instead of burrowing into human tragedy, The Year Earth Changed reminds us of the interconnectedness and resilience of all the life forms on our planet.
It offers an affirmative slant less ‘we are the virus’; more, the suffering of these last 12 or so months hasn’t been all in vain as well as a way out of the environmental disaster that we’re unquestionably still facing.
The Year Earth Changed premieres April 16 on Apple TV+.