10 things we learned from this photo of Britain and Ireland at night

Oooooh, shiny. Image: VRIS.

It’s easy to forget just how incredible it this that we live in age when anyone with a phone can instantly see photographs from space of anywhere on the planet. But if you go to Google Maps and zoom in, you’re only seeing the daytime view. 

There’s a whole other side to the planet, and in fact there are cameras in space specifically designed to capture the dark side of the Earth. Here’s a photograph from one, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS for short.

What’s the point of photographing the Earth at night? Well, artificial light is the single most obvious sign of human habitation, so it’s a very effective way to track things like how cities are growing, how much energy a town uses, or where human activity is encroaching on protected environments.

So what does this particular one tell us? Well…

1) London may be pretty big but there’s still a lot of space inside the M25

OK, NASA didn’t spend millions of dollars on satellites just to tell us that London is in fact big, but seeing it lit up like this really reveals just how far it stretches. If you dropped it in the north-west, it would stretch all the way from Liverpool to Manchester.

The M25 shows up surprisingly clearly, too, as a ring of light a few miles outside the glow of the capital. So much for the Great Wall of China being the only structure visible from space.

2) The North West has almost merged into one big city

Between the Wirral – the spit of land opposite Liverpool – and Rochdale on the eastern edge of Greater Manchester, the land is almost totally aglow. Major towns like Wigan and Warrington sit between the two biggest cities, and others like Preston and Chester sit just outside their edges. 

Overall, the chunk of urbanisation in what used to be Lancashire and Cheshire has a population of at least 5 million, maybe 6 million depending how far you stretch those borders. That’s pretty big, and it rivals some of Europe’s other great industrial urban zones such as the Ruhr in Germany or Greater Milan in Italy. But it’s only around half the population of London despite covering a similar area. The North West is just too fragmented to be considered a single urban area.

3) The West Midlands arguably already has

The West Midlands is a bit more compact – from space, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall, West Bromwich and the rest have merged into a single glowing blob and only Coventry stands alone. But with a population around 3 million, it doesn’t have all that many people for an urban area of that size – there’s a lot of suburban sprawl – and besides, telling someone from Wolverhampton that they’re basically a Brummie is a recipe for an argument.

4) Almost no-one lives between York and Edinburgh (with one big exception)

When politicians talk about the North, they usually mostly mean cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds which aren’t really all that far north. In fact, York is only halfway between London and Edinburgh by train. There are huge counties between the two like North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Northumberland, Scottish Borders and Dumfries & Galloway, but all these have relatively small populations and no real cities.

Except… there is one giant blob of light in the North East stretching from Newcastle to Middlesbrough. This is the Durham coast, where convenient river ports and reserves of coal created the giant conurbations of Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside. Together with the city of Durham, these have also kind of blended into one big coastal city with a population of 2 million or so.

5) Nearly everyone in Scotland lives in the middle

Scotland has a population of around 5.4 million. Around 3.5 million of them live in the “Central Belt” around Glasgow and Edinburgh. That means that about two thirds of Scots live in that bright stripe across the middle of the country. Geographically, it’s not a major surprise – the Central Belt is built around relatively low-lying river valleys in an otherwise very mountainous part of the world, so it’s one of the few places in Scotland where you could build a major city. But it’s not the only one.

6) No wonder Aberdeen’s so rich

So, what’s the deal with all the lights in the top right corner, where’s there’s no land there at all, just open sea? Well, those lights are the flares from oil and gas rigs. 

The vast majority of these are in Scottish waters, and the nearest major port is Aberdeen, located on the jutting out bit of north east Scotland. This has made the city the perfect place for oil companies and all the engineering, transport and processing industries that come with it. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but oil is quite valuable, and oil companies have a lot of money.

7) The Welsh valleys are pretty unique

Being so rough and mountainous, Wales doesn’t lend itself to urban sprawl. Most of the population lives in South Wales, with around 30 per cent of the population in the valleys around Cardiff. These used to be strongholds of the coal and steel industries, and the influx of workers into these steep walled valleys produced long “linear towns” stretching out like fingers from Cardiff and Newport. The industries have mostly gone, but towns like Caerphilly and Methyr Tydfil remain, and as the map shows, there’s really nowhere else in Britain quite like them.

8) Ireland’s cities just aren’t that big

Dublin shows up well enough on the night time photo, but the other cities on the island of Ireland are surprisingly hard to spot. Belfast and Cork are pretty clear if you know where they are, but other major cities like Limerick and Derry barely stand out from the villages around them. 

The reason is simply that these cities are relatively small – Derry may be the fifth largest city on the island, but its urban area still only has 90,000 people.

A lot has been written about the history of Ireland’s population changes – so much that there’s a Wikipedia article literally titled “Irish population analysis”. Just before the Great Famine, the island had a population of 6.5 million, but when the food ran out many people emigrated, and while Great Britain was growing, Ireland was shrinking. When industry came, it was focused mostly on the major ports, particularly Belfast and Dublin, and the services like banking that followed ended up being even more Dublin-centric. Ireland’s population as a whole has finally returned to pre-Famine levels, but that population is concentrated almost entirely in one or two cities.

9) Its towns are surprisingly regularly spaced

Let’s look at Limerick again. Between it and Dublin is a string of tiny towns. These include (going east to west) Nenagh, Roscrea, Portlaoise and Newbridge. According to Google Maps, Limerick to Nenagh is about 8 hours walk, Nenagh to Roscrea is 6 and a half, Roscrea to Portlaoise is another 8 hours, Portlaoise to Newbridge is about 8 and half, and Newbridge to the centre of Dublin is another 8 and a half. 

In other words, each town is day’s walk from the next. Long ago, these towns will have grown up around inns and markets, and this created a very regular grid of towns across the landscape. 

On a bigger scale, you can see the same thing in Great Britain. Heading south from Sheffield there’s a long string of major towns down the M1 motorway all the way down to London – Chesterfield, Nottingham, Leicester, Northampton, Milton Keynes and Luton – roughly evenly spaced. It’s almost like a grid stretching across the country.

10) South East England doesn’t look like North East France

Only about 20 miles of open water divide Dover and Calais, and in fact for much of its history, Calais was English territory. 

But geographically the two look very different. Kent is on the outer edge of London’s commuter belt, and it has a several reasonably large towns like Ashford, Canterbury and Maidstone. Across the water, the land around Calais is almost empty – in fact, much of it is a protected nature reserve. In the very corner you can see the French city of Lille and its surburbs, which spill over the Belgian border to the city of Kortrijk. And beyond that? Well, that’s something for another post.



The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.