The modern world is dependent on GPS. So what happens if it fails?

Satellites, of the sort on which we are no terrifyingly dependent. Image: Getty.

It’s  easy to forget how much we depend upon the Global Positioning System. We are able to send instant messages over continental distances, drive with confidence to places we’ve never visited, and place full trust in pilots to land us safely at our destination, all because of GPS.

Thanks to a carefully calibrated, intricate network of 24 satellites placed in orbit by the US Department of Defence, beyond the Earth’s stratosphere, the technologically-mediated world we inhabit seems to be one that is fundamentally woven into the fabric of the planet, naturally evolving, safe-guarded from malfunctioning.

GPS has facilitated the growth of almost all the infrastructures that shape our lives. The microwave signals sent back down to Earth from the satellites help receivers to establish parameters of space, time and velocity. The satellites are embedded with atomic clocks, devices that can measure the time accurately down to a nanosecond. These are in sync with the Coordinated Universal Time – the primary time standard of the world. By acting as both a positioning and timing system, GPS has been almost irreversibly tied to the smooth running of international operations: banking transactions, military ventures and meteorological analysis have all been influenced.

The total collapse of GPS may seem like the most improbable of outcomes.  A rational assumption can be made that something as fundamental to societal processes as GPS will be heavily protected and rigorously backed-up in case of an emergency.

But what if it all comes crashing down?

In terms of a cyber warfare-led, direct attack on the satellite system itself, the risk of GPS meltdown is minimal. Colorado houses the GPS Master Control Station, served and protected by the United States Air Force. Any terrorist attack designed to induce anarchy would have to overcome the near-impossible task of penetrating the Colorado base – or wield a weapon powerful enough to take down the constellation of satellites.

Slightly more problematic is the fact that GPS isn’t quite beyond the reaches of a natural disaster. In 1859, a solar storm known as the Carrington Event caused severe geomagnetic disturbances on Earth; it meant “northern lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, while southern lights were seen as far north as Santiago, Chile”. Modern technology means that a repeat of 1859’s storm would be ruinous.

On the micro scale, the risk of failure seems to be far greater. Earlier this year, time-monitoring company Chronos noted that a number of their clients had reported massive disruptions, later found to be as a result of a slight shift in GPS signalling timing – 13 microseconds to be exact. The resulting chaos culminated in 12 hours of system errors.

Given the generally weak nature of GPS signals, they are prone to being thrown off course by “jamming”, a process of blocking usually caused by drivers who use small devices to dodge being tracked. The jammers, including thousands in the UK, include cab drivers or delivery men who want to avoid their employers keeping tabs on their journeys and whereabouts. According to The Atlantic, it’s this type of jamming that has caused disruptions to airports and halted port operations.

Similar to jamming is spoofing – the relaying of a false signal to a GPS receiver. Spoof signals are indistinguishable from the real signals, meaning that they can seriously skew the GPS’s timing. According to The New Yorker, a spoof signal sent from a device built by the Los Alamos National Laboratory was able to convince a stationary receiver that it was moving at 600 miles per hour.

There is very little in place to sustain the systems dependent on GPS in case of a catastrophic collapse. There will be systems launched by Europe and China by 2020 – but sceptics feel little has been done to improve upon the weaknesses of the internationally-accessible GPS.

Another avenue being explored is the implementation of improved atomic clocks, ones which can stay in harmony with the atomic clocks of other satellites as well as Coordinated Universal Time in the case signalling failure. This type of system shows promise, but costs will mount, as the research exploring the potential use of these clocks is expected to be prolonged.

The devastating consequences that could arise from the subtlest of changes to GPS signalling make the whole system seem shaky. Power grids could go down, communication services could buckle, and weather forecasts could end up completely off. Even the millions playing Pokémon Go, Nintendo’s new, smartphone-based augmented reality game, will no longer be able to head outdoors to catch ‘em all.

If we are to continue to enjoy a form of modernity propped up by GPS, it may need us to take a moment to help prop it up, too.

Hasan Chowdhury is the Wellcome Scholar at the New Statesman, where this article was first published


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.