What happens if the Arctic doesn’t freeze?

Icebergs in Greenland in the summer of 2013. Image: Getty.

graph showing the globe’s rapidly diminishing sea ice went viral last week. Now a new study warns that the Arctic melt could trigger “tipping points” that speed up global warming around the world. A spokesperson for the World Meteorological Organisation tells the New Statesman: “We are entering a new climate era.” 

So what exactly is going on and what degree of doom does this spell for the rest of us?

For Britain

I ask Professor Julian Dowdeswell, a glaciologist and director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University, if the new data from the Arctic means we’ll be seeing a The Day After Tomorrow style Gulf Stream shutdown any time soon?

“No,” he replies. Crashing helicopters and flash-freezing are still the stuff of “scientific nonsense”.

But he also points out that the film’s opening scene, showing the break-up of an Antarctic ice-shelf, has already happened. And that at least 70-80 per cent of the changes we’re seeing now are human-induced.

Such changes include: extremely high temperatures in the arctic regions (as much as 20°C higher than normal for the time of year); an Arctic sea ice winter maximum that was the lowest ever in March; and a decline in summer sea ice from around 8m sq km to about 4.5–5m sq km over the last 30 odd years.

So while there may still be spikes in sea ice levels in any given year, the long-term trend of the satellite data is clear: Arctic sea ice is in an alarming decline.

As for what this means for the UK’s weather, scientists still cannot say with certainty. One possible scenario would be a slowing of the Gulf Stream and paradoxically cooler conditions in the UK. 

When winter sea ice is formed, Dowdeswell explains, it leaves behind a lot of the water’s salt. The remaining water therefore becomes very salty and very dense, and sinks to the bottom of the water column, where it flows south. In its place, you get less dense, warmer, water returning back north.

So theoretically, if you produce less sea ice you slow the circulation of the Gulf Stream: “In principle, if that goes far enough, you could actually end up with a cooler Britain in a warming world,” says Dowdeswell.

For the Arctic community

According to Clare Nullis, a media officer with WMO, “The most immediate human impacts of the changes in the Arctic are people who live there and see their traditional way of life being threatened.” Populations in Canada and Alaska are already moving in order to avoid falling into the sea. The timing and location of hunting practices are changing. And disease risk is on the rise.

Some point out that increased opportunities for shipping and tourism will bring the region economic benefits. But it will also raise the risk of oil and chemical spills.

For the rest of the world

As the new Arctic Resilience Report finds, the effects of Arctic warming are already being felt as far away as the Indian Ocean.

And, as a spokesperson from WMO’s World Climate Research Programme, points out, the trend is likely to increase: “Less sea ice means less sunlight reflected into space and more absorbed by the oceans, so the temperature of the Arcitc (and the world) increases... an example of what we call positive feedback.”

With 2016 on track to be the hottest year on record, further melting of the world’s glacier and ice caps looks assured. As for more geographically specific predictions, scientists are still wary of saying for certain. According to Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in America,

“There is a strong debate ongoing in the science community regarding how a warming Arctic might influence weather patterns in the middle latitudes. Some scientists argue that we are already seeing some of these effects – things like stuck weather patterns whereby Chicago is in a deep freeze while at the same time Alaska is seeing extreme warmth. Other scientists maintain that while the warming Arctic may have some influence, this is overwhelmed by things like El Nino.”

What is certain is that the recent election of Donald Trump has destabilised the global move to combat climate change and will make the need for joined-up scientific argument and research greater than ever.

Sadly his plans to remove the budget for climate change science, through Nasa research, means that we could all be seeing a lot more hot water ahead. 

India Bourke is editorial assistant at the New Statesman, where this piece was originally published. 

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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: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

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.