On one thing, Daniel Hannan is right: Great Britain is not a small island on any measure

The largest islands on earth. Gotta catch ’em all! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Eurocrats, keep telling me that Britain is a ‘small island’” Daniel Hannan tweeted the other day. “In what sense? We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, the fourth military power and a UN Security Council member. If we’re ‘small’, what are the big islands? Sumatra? Borneo?”

This was a characteristically ill-considered and, frankly, stupid tweet from the Conservative MEP, and not a little annoying, since he’d done so much to bugger up the island in question. For one thing, “Britain” isn’t any of the things he listed: he’s mixing up the United Kingdon of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (which is a nation state, an economy, a military power and so on) with Great Britain (which is an island, of some size or another, and not called, simply, “Britain”). For another, given Hannan’s history of, let us say, existing at something of an angle to actual, real reality, I’m not entirely convinced that Eurocrats keep telling him any such thing.

And then there’s this rather good point from the escaped Labour advisor Tom Hamilton:

On one point, though, Hannan is completely correct: Great Britain, as we must assume that he means, is not a small island. It is, national myth-making aside, one of the biggest islands on the planet.

Here’s a list of the world’s largest islands:

1. Greenland (part of the Danish realm) – 2,130,800km2 Greenland (part of the Danish realm)

2. New Guinea (Indonesia/Papua New Guinea) – 785,753km2

3. Borneo (Indonesia/Malaysia/Brunei) – 748,168km2    

4. Madagascar – 587,041km2  

5. Baffin Island (Canada) – 507,451km2

6. Sumatra (Indonesia) – 443,066km2

7. Honshu (Japan) – 225,800km2

8. Victoria Island (Canada) – 217,291km2

9. Great Britain (UK) – 209,331km2

10. Ellesmere Island (Canada) – 196,236km2

The largest island on the planet is generally considered to be Greenland. (Most observers assume that that mainland Australia, four times Greenland’s size, counts as a continent.) It’s about ten times Great Britain’s size – which, when you put it like that, does indeed makes the latter seem relatively small.

Thing is, though, there are so many islands on the planet that it’s pretty much impossible to come up with a definitive figure. Do we count every isolated rock in the sea? Every man-made island in every lake in every municipal park? Greece claims to have 6,000 islands, but Sweden claims more than 225,000, which suggests to me they’re using rather different definitions. Where do you draw the line?

At any rate: even if we restrict ourselves to islands bigger than Greater London – 1,569km2; a fairly arbitrary measure for “a decent sized-place” – there are 247 of the things. Okay, Great Britain may be smaller than Greenland. But whichever way you cut it, being the ninth biggest island on the entire planet makes it a pretty significant lump of land.

On, and there are only four continental landmasses, so that makes (Great) Britain the 13th biggest landmass on the planet, too.

By population, it ranks even higher. Here are the 10 biggest islands in terms of approximate number of people living on them:

1. Java (Indonesia) – 141m

2. Honshū (Japan) – 104m

3. Great Britain (UK) – 64m

4. Luzon (Philippines) – 61m

5. Sumatra (Indonesia) – 50m

6. Madagascar – 26m

7. Mindanao (Philippines) – 25m

8. Taiwan – 23m

9. Borneo (Indonesia) – 21m

10. Sri Lanka – 21m

Great Britain is the third most populous island on the planet. And this is actually even more impressive than it sounds because, although there are four continental landmasses, one of them, mainland Australia, has a population of 24.5m, somewhere under half Great Britain’s, while Antarctica is home to almost nobody at all.

And so, the five most populated landmasses in the world are as follows:

1. Afro-Eurasia – 6bn

2. North & South America – 1bn

3. Java – 141m

4. Honshū – 104m

5. Great Britain – 64m

Okay, there’s quite a steep descent between the first and fifth place on that ranking. But nonetheless: Great Britain is the fifth most populated landmass on the planet.

Last one and then I’ll stop. I can’t find estimates for GDP of every landmass on the planet – too hard to work out the GDP of that island in the lake in Harrow Lodge Park, I assume – but I went through the most populous ones, and where figures weren’t available worked out very rough estimates based on population size.

Here’s my ranking of the world’s landmasses by the size of their economy. The figures are approximate; the rankings, I feel confident are not:

1. Afro-Eurasia – around $50trn

2. North & South America – around $25trn

3. Honshū – just under $5trn

4. Great Britain – just over $2trn

...at which point it gets difficult. Originally I had Taiwan here (somewhere around $500bn). But readers have pointed out that Taiwan has a smaller GDP than Australia ($1.3trn), and possibly Java, Manhattan and Long Island, too. So I’m going to stop at the top four.

So, on one level, Daniel Hannan was right. Great Britain is the world’s 9th largest island and 13th largest landmass; it ranks 5th when we count landmasses by population, and 4th when we count them by GDP. It is not a small place.

Nonetheless, I’m calling bullshit on his tweet for two reasons. Firstly, my suspicion is that the idea that Britain is a small, unimportant island comes from Britain itself. It’s oddly self-flattering: by emphasising our smallness, we magnify our achievements. “We’re the fifth most populated landmass on the planet, of course we’re a significant player in global affairs,” is not a message calculated to stir the heart.


The other reason I think his entire message is nonsense is that, however you measure Britain’s size – its landmass, its population, its GDP – it is a lot smaller than the combined might of the remaining 27 members of the European Union. Britain is a relatively big island. That doesn’t mean it can’t get crushed.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

 
 
 
 

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.