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Savage Planet

Savage Planet

Volcanic Killers
The hidden dangers of volcanoes, crater lakes, and lahars are revealed in this first program of the SAVAGE PLANET series. The immediate dangers of active volcanoes are well known -- the deadly eruption of boiling rock and lava that can swiftly envelop entire communities. But there are hidden dangers as well. The fatal combination of volcano and water poses other kinds of threats.

More than 100 volcanoes have lakes at their summits. While a volcano itself may be dormant for hundreds of years, its crater lake may hide a volatile fury. In Nyos, West Africa, the crater at the summit of a seemingly dormant volcano had, over time, become a lake. But beneath the surface, from between volcanic rocks and the earth, vast quantities of carbon dioxide was accumulating. One night, a cliff collapse disturbed the lake, releasing the deadly gases and taking the lives of 1,700 people.

In New Zealand on Christmas Eve of 1953, the worst rail disaster in that country's history was caused by lahars, mudflows formed by a lethal combination of water and volcanic debris. Lahars were also responsible for much of the destruction when Mount Saint Helens in Washington erupted in 1980. In this program, volcanologists explain why its neighbor, Mount Ranier, may be next. In the Philippines, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 coincided with the annual typhoons, creating massive lahars that decimated the surrounding area for months. Survivors who lost loved ones in the disaster recount their terrifying ordeal.

Storms of the Century
Most people think of hurricanes as the biggest storms on Earth. Meteorologists give them names and track their destructive paths on the news. An extratropical cyclone -- a storm born outside of the tropics -- on occasion can grow even bigger than a hurricane.

This program opens in Florida, where, in 1993, an extratropical cyclone began a reign of terror that destroyed lives all along the East Coast. More people died in this storm than in Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo combined. A U.S. Coast Guard pilot and the fisherman he saved relive a daring helicopter rescue. Further north, a record snowfall brought the entire Appalachian region to a standstill. Campers in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains recall being near death, lost, and frostbitten, before helicopters finally rescued them. Off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, helicopters couldn't make it to the scene of a large bulk-carrier foundering in massive waves. Royal Canadian Air Force pilots circled their aircraft overhead, maintaining contact with the crew and recording every harrowing moment with an infrared camera. Their footage is some of the most dramatic in the program. Captain Michel Carriere remembers watching helplessly from above as a 100-foot wave finally took the vessel. "Basically some big hand squeezed my heart and just almost paralyzed me for a few seconds, as I realized that the 33 people I had just talked to were now under water and either dead or drowning," he says.

Here, the program takes a turn into the past to examine a nearly forgotten disaster. In this case, the culprit was a storm surge, another rare, meteorological phenomenon that occurs when low pressure passes over a body of water. In 1953, very low pressure and hurricane-force winds coincided with a high tide, allowing the sea to rise and creating the biggest storm surge in northern Europe in living memory.

The storm surge's victims included all of the women and children aboard the British railcar ferry Princess Victoria. A surviving crew member recollects the harrowing drama. A United States serviceman who helped rescue 27 people in the English coastal town of Hunstanton, engulfed by the storm surge, recounts his efforts. Three brothers who survived the storm on England's Canvey Island talk about the loss of three younger brothers. On islands off the Dutch coast, where the same storm caused the highest tide in recorded history, memories of shattered dykes, submerged villages, and lost lives are equally disturbing.

Deadly Skies
This program delves deep into the secrets of the Earth's atmosphere and beyond to discover the strange and deadly powers that reside there. Killer bolts of lightning seem to appear out of the blue. Hail comes just as suddenly, destroying crops and homes in a violent clatter. Rocks from space reshape the landscape and sometimes change the course of history.

In Surrey Hills, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, no one will ever forget the 1999 supercell thunderstorm that caused giant hailstones to come plummeting out of the sky. The storm generated so much electrical energy it could have powered the city for a day. Also in Australia, the program meets up with a woman who was struck by lightning in 1993. She tells of being knocked unconscious for 90 minutes and sustaining burns to 30% of her body. Two glider pilots tell of their own bout with a lightning bolt, which literally blew them out of the sky. In Florida, the lightning capital of the United States, scientists at Camp Blanding show how they create lightning for research purposes, and NASA meteorologists at Cape Canaveral explain the importance of their work to the space program.

Sometimes, the exploration of space starts right here on Earth. In 1992, in the little town of Peekskill, New York, a 27-pound meteor hit the Earth's atmosphere at 4,000 miles per hour. It punched a hole right through the trunk of a 1980 Chevrolet Malibu. The program catches up with the owner who was nearby when the meteor crashed. For many, ancient debris from space is a passion, and the program introduces planetary scientists, collectors, and enthusiasts, chronicles the discovery of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, and examines the famous Meteor Crater in Arizona.

High mountains in the depths of winter and the hottest, driest, lowest place in North America are the austere settings for this program. The imagery is stunning -- rugged snow-capped peaks juxtaposed with endless vistas of salt flats shimmering in the hot sun -- but the realities of these extreme environments are harsh.

Climbers and skiers tell how they barely escaped with their lives when avalanches swept them off the slopes in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. This program documents efforts here and in Washington state to control the snow by triggering avalanches with explosives. At Stevens Pass in Washington, America's worst avalanche disaster took place. Photographs from the disaster, in 1910, reveal the twisted wreckage of two trains that were pushed off the track and rolled down into a river. The program also revisits a more recent tragedy, the avalanche that devastated parts of the Chamonix Valley in France in 1999.

The program also shows how desert regions are equally unforgiving and full of mystery. A geologist is the guide to Death Valley's dry lakebeds, strange outcroppings of rock, "sliding rocks" that appear to move without provocation, and other phenomena. United States Geological Survey scientists are seen at work in the salt flats, the hottest place in the valley, where they record a surface temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and an air temperature of 112 degrees. Residents and other aficionados of Death Valley have their say in the program, too, explaining their intense attraction to this inhospitable place.

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