In “Making North America,” Kirk Johnson — a Bellevue native and director of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History — crisscrosses the continent to explore our surprising landscape.
Not every child with downcast eyes is trying to withdraw from an overwhelming world.
For geologist and paleontologist Kirk Johnson — a Bellevue native and director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History — gazing at the ground below his feet during youthful hikes in Washington became the foundation of a lifelong passion.
“When I was hiking around at age 5 on family trips, I started finding really cool rocks and fossils,” Johnson says. “Eventually I realized I could predict where I’d find them. I was always looking at the ground, and that continues to this day. I love nothing better than seeing what kind of geological surprises are out there.”
These days, the full scale of Johnson’s explorations is the entire Earth. Beginning Wednesday, Nov. 4, viewers of the PBS program “Nova” will see how far he’ll go to find the story behind one chunk of the globe in a wildly entertaining and illuminating three-part series called “Making North America.”
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A winning blend of scientific adventure, filmmaking and computer-generated images depicting our continent’s dynamic history, “Making North America” finds Johnson around glaciers, mountains, coasts and caves to describe the elemental forces that formed, reformed and continue to change the landscape.
Along the way, visual effects show viewers mountains that came and went around what is now New York City, and the giant, inland sea — full of huge reptiles — that once covered Kansas.
“You can film surfaces,” Johnson says, “but to understand what tectonic plates are, you really do need to move continents visually, or to understand a tsunami, you have to show one.”
In one of the first episode’s most impressive moments, Johnson, 55, rappels into the Grand Canyon while computer-generated visuals help us see the environments that existed there over time: lava and ash, beach and marshes, desert sand.
“Rappelling is about trusting the gear,” Johnson says. “I’ve been doing fieldwork on all the continents my whole life. I’ve routinely walked along the edge of a cliff and climbed over steep things. I’ve explored 1,400 different fossil sites, and that involves getting into remote areas of the Arctic, Antarctic, tropics and everywhere else.”
At the Smithsonian, Johnson oversees the largest natural-history collection in the world — more than 128 million objects — as well as a huge staff of scientists publishing hundreds of research papers and identifying new species every year.
His greatest challenge, however, is helping ordinary people understand their connection to their landscapes.
“Most people don’t realize Seattle and Puget Sound were covered in 3,000 feet of ice only 15,000 years ago,” he says. “The changes came at the beginning of human civilization.”
One of the last chapters shot for “Making North America” concerns the Cascadia fault and the earthquake it could unleash on Seattle.
“Given that Seattle wasn’t built thinking about earthquakes, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of damage when it happens,” he says. “There’s a certain percentage [chance] of a big earthquake in the next 50 years. That gives us context to prepare. It’s all about risk mitigation. I would still live in Seattle, but I would make sure I was personally prepared.”