8 things we learned from this map of the highest point in every county in England

Scafell Pike, Cumbria: highest point in England. Image: Dougsim/Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes you come across a map on Wikipedia and, although you’re not sure why someone made it, you’re glad they did.

Here, for some reason, is a map of the counties of England coloured according to how high their highest point (also known as the “county top”) is.

The map I never knew I needed. Image: Mr Greg/Wikimedia Commons.

Dark greens are the lowest, dark purples are the highest, and pale shades are in between. There are quite a few interesting patterns here, so let’s dive right in.

1. There’s not just a north-south divide, but an east-west one

It’s probably not news to you that northern England is hillier than the south (and Scotland, although it’s not on the map, is more mountainous still), but that’s not the only way Britain’s mountains run. Start on the east coast of England and head west, and you will almost certainly be climbing.

If you draw a line from the River Tees in the North East to the River Exe in the South West, you’ll find that almost all Britain’s mountains are on its northern/western side. The Lake District, Snowdonia, Dartmoor – these mountainous areas are all on the west coast. The difference across that line is quite stark – apart from Gloucestershire, every large county west of that line has a highest point over 400 metres, while no county east of it has a highest point over 300 metres.

If you’re too lazy to draw a line on a map yourself, here’s one Wikipedia made earlier. Image: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

2. Yorkshire Tea tastes funny in the green counties – and that isn’t a coincidence.

West of that Tees-Exe line, you find a lot of hard jagged igneous rock: Ancient lava, in other words, which has been pushed up to form craggy moors and mountains.

On the southern and eastern side, the ground is made of sedimentary rocks like chalk – the calcium-filled remains of billions of tiny sea creatures from when the area was at the bottom of a prehistoric sea. This chalk is what makes the White Cliffs of Dover white.

When rain falls on the igneous rock, it just pools there. When it falls in chalky ground, however, it soaks through, and minerals dissolve into it. When you boil that water in your kettle, the calcium compounds solidify inside it, and you’ve got the dreaded limescale. Northern and Welsh teas are actually specially blended for the soft water, so if anyone asks ever asks you why Yorkshire Tea doesn’t taste right down south, just tell them: it’s because southern water is contaminated with the bodies of ancient sea snails.

3. Urban riverside counties stand out

There are three little blobs of green west of the Tees-Exe line: Tyne & Wear, Merseyside, and Bristol. All three of these are big urban areas built as ports on the mouths of rivers, so of course they’re going to be pretty low-lying – by definition, they’re mostly at sea level. Tyne & Wear manages to have a fairly high summit because it stretches to the edge of the Pennines, but regardless, they’re a bit weird.

4. So does Derbyshire

That dark blob right in the middle of England? That’s Derbyshire. The modern borders of Derbyshire align with the boundaries of the Peak District national park pretty closely, so it’s no surprise that it’s much higher than its neighbours. But it’s still pretty inconvenient that it’s so mountainous, for reasons you’re about to discover.

5. This map helps explain the North-South divide

There is a fairly well established economic relationship between how mountainous a country or region is and how strong its economy is. Although the relationship isn’t the strongest, a flat area gets a definite head start economically, because it’s easier to build on and to travel around.

If you wanted to build a new railway line from London to Brighton, you’d only have to climb up and down about 500 feet (150 metres). If it ran from London to Oxford through the Chiltern Hills, the difference between its highest and lowest points would be about 800 feet (240 metres). But a railway from Manchester to Sheffield through Derbyshire needs to climb over 1,500 feet (460 metres) – or run through very long and deep tunnels, like the former Woodhead Line did. The two cities only have a couple of narrow, winding roads between them, which tend to close at the first flake of snow, plus one surviving railway line. It’s frustrating, but at least this map explains why building a new line would be a challenge.

Of course, one thing this map doesn’t explain is why they think it’s a good idea to link the North’s biggest cities with Pacers.


6. Norfolk is really flat

OK, again this isn’t a surprise. Most of Norfolk is nearly at sea level, and without its drainage pumps the land around the Fens and Broads would probably be flooded. But even at its very highest point, Beacon Hill, it only reaches 103 metres. Despite what the film Reign of Fire tried to tell you, no dragon could ever hide in the mountains of Norfolk.

7. In a way, this is quite a misleading map

Cheshire is a reasonably dark shade of purple on this map. Its highest point, Shining Tor, is the tenth highest county top in England. But… it’s actually a notoriously flat county, and almost its entire area is covered by the Cheshire Plain (that very rich area full of footballers’ mansions and 4x4s). But its eastern edge just scrapes the Peak District, which means it can just about claim a few mountains.

The scale is a bit weird too. Cumbria and Northumberland are the same colour even though Cumbria is by far the most mountainous county in England – at 978 metres, its highest point, Scafell Pike (England’s highest mountain), is 163 metres higher than the highest point in Northumberland. The difference between Norfolk’s highest point and Oxfordshire’s is only 158 metres, but these are several categories apart. If anything, this map is overstating how hilly the South East is.

8. County top names are really weird

Milk Hill. High Willhays. Black Chew Head. Mickle Fell. Dunkery Beacon. Normanby le Wold Top. Brown Willy. Cheeks Point on Cheeks Hill. How are these real places?

 
 
 
 

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.