Attracted To A Disaster Movie Plotline

As a genre, the “disaster movie” is a just about as old as cinema itself. The movies themselves seem to get ever more implausible with the passing of each year, with every type of disaster getting explored, and with the next threat to humankind needing to be a tiny bit madder than the last. Remember all those films from the 1990s and 2000s when the world was going to end? Deep Impact, Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow in particular spring to mind.

But can you remember Absolute Zero or Polar Storm? Me neither. Both dealt with the effects of a change in the Earth’s magnetic field – with typically outlandish consequences. However, it would seem that they might have been onto something judging by an interesting news story this week (albeit there is no current indication that Florida is about to enter an ice age).

It would seem there have been odd goings on with the Earth’s magnetic field in the South Atlantic. Since 1970 the strength of the magnetic field in this region has dropped by 8%. This in turn has been creating problems for satellites flying overhead, some of which have been malfunctioning because they rely on the Earth’s magnetic field to work as intended.

Now, I know next to nothing about satellites, but it is pretty astonishing to think that some geological happenings taking place within the core of the Earth are enough to break some spacecraft flying overhead.

It was enough to prompt me to find out more. This led me to discover that, apparently, the Earth’s magnetic field has lost around 10% of its overall strength over the past two centuries.

10%! As if dealing with Covid-19 wasn’t enough, it now seems our compasses are about to stop working too!

As ever, the headline writers are quite possibly exaggerating about what is going on here.

First of all, let’s deal with the purpose of the magnetic field. Yes, it helps us navigate around the globe by telling us where the magnetic north is, which itself means that we can plot where everywhere else is on Earth in relation to this point. This is clearly very important for all manner of reasons. GPS wouldn’t work without this reference point, for example, which would make global navigation less accurate, and which itself would carry some potentially serious economic implications. Nobody wants a cargo ship going the wrong way due to human error, and thus causing expensive disruptions to a global supply chain.

However, perhaps more importantly for life on Earth, the magnetic field dictates the presence of the ‘magnetosphere’ around our planet which helps repel deadly radiation particles emitted from the sun. I’d place this at the top of my ‘magnetic field importance list’, well ahead of my wristwatch being able to track my latest slow run for uploading to Strava.

Is there any indication at all that the magnetosphere is suddenly going to vanish? No. While some changes to the strength of the magnetic field might have been detected, there is zero indication that deadly radiation is going to stream through the atmosphere and kill us all.

I do find the idea of the impact on satellites intriguing, though, and mainly because of the size of the numbers involved. There are around 5,000 satellites currently orbiting Earth, not counting the debris that has ended up in orbit, of course, over the last seventy years. Just think of all the money spent on getting those satellites up there. Not all satellites are created equal, but it would seem that the cost of building one could be around the $290 million mark (various websites disagree on the cost, and this figure appears to be somewhere in the middle).

Using this number – and using back of a fag packet maths– then we might estimate that there is $1.45 trillion whizzing around our planet in hardware. And that’s before counting the cost of getting it there in the first place – somewhere between $50-400 million per satellite, depending on the payload – as well as the cost of ongoing maintenance once it is up there.

These are mind-boggling sums, of course, and it seems inconceivable that so much money would be spent on thousands of machines that are capable of breaking down because of things occurring thousands of miles deep within the Earth.

The fact that this is true, and is actually happening… Well, the mysteries of space and our planet will never cease to be a cause of fascination to me. Nor will our collective ability to spend lots of money on things that don’t work properly. Most importantly, for now, I’m glad we’re not in disaster movie territory just yet. Phew.

Amsterdam: “Don’t Visit Our City!”

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 is going to throw up all sorts of books and films in the future. You can be sure of that.

Top of my list for a guaranteed interpretation of recent events is a docu-drama-cum-satire on Channel 4 which will focus on what the UK government has been doing to deal with the crisis. Expect exaggerated performances mimicking Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and chief science boffin Chris Whitty, and quite possibly an over-the-top comic turn from a Nicola Sturgeon soundalike who provides ridicule from a (non-social) distance.

More pressingly, the global economy is in a bit of a mess and doesn’t seem likely to get better any time soon. Unlike the Great Recession of 2008, which few people seemed to see coming at the time (even though some revisionism has it that it really all began in 2006), the general view at the moment is that we’re taking our cue from Back To The Future Part III. We’re hurtling along on Doc Brown’s train and we just know that we’re all heading into that ravine. Hopefully, though, things are not going to turn out as bad as it might seem right now.

On the subject of Covid-19 related finances, something caught my eye in the news today. One of the big Covid-19 impacts has come from travel – or, more pertinently, the lack of travel. For many people in 2020, a fancy holiday is not going to be a ‘thing’ this year. Bunkering down and saving the pennies seems like the only option available as the whole world tries to control the spread of this virus.

Clearly, the knock-on effect for business from reduced travel is large. Not being able to do deals face-to-face across international borders, apart from via Zoom or such like, will benefit only the most creative and resourceful of companies. But even more obvious is the impact we have been seeing on tourism.

You would think that tourist hotspots would be bursting at the seams to get visitors back into their shops, cafes and bars. I include the place I have made home, Gibraltar, in that category. But this is not the case in Amsterdam, it would appear. The mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, has said the city should be “extremely cautious” about welcoming back the 9 million or so people who visit and stay in this wonderfully eclectic city each year (some of the more outlandish – and possibly barely credible – estimates have annual Amsterdam visitor numbers at more like 19 million). The reason given is the fear of a second wave of Covid-19.

However, that might not be the whole story. On the face of it, 9 million is a hell of a lot of people for a city that already squeezes around 900,000 people into the city centre proper. And let’s face it, the vast majority of those 9 million won’t be visiting the suburbs. They want to be taking a stroll along the Leidseplein or Prinsengracht, taking photos of the narrow houses and thinking about where they should try their next pint of white beer.

There has been a lot of noise in recent years from Amsterdam politicians – and members of the public – that they would like their city back. There has been a campaign underway to actively reduce tourist numbers and “return the city to its people”.

For a place I love so much, what does this mean for those of who enjoy visiting this city built on sticks? Well, if Halsema and the other like-minded politicians get their way, there could be all sorts of negative consequences for people like me.

Could some novel form of taxation be introduced to discourage visitors? It isn’t difficult to imagine a world where you have to pay a surcharge to visit Amsterdam, one even greater than the current existing city tax which is set at 5%. Would a 20% tax put people off?

Or, perhaps, a minimum number of nights might need to be booked at a hotel? Pitching the number of nights you can stay in the city at seven nights minimum would certainly deter plenty of people from booking a visit, but might not be enough to put the rich people off. In such a scenario, maybe Amsterdam could become a kind of Northern European St Tropez, an exclusive destination attractive only to the hoi polloi?

Of course, these are simplistic scenarios and unlikely to happen in the way described. Especially when tourism is reported to be worth around €87.5 billion a year to the wider Dutch economy. You might expect that, in this instance, these numbers will do all the talking. But in a world where a virus can bring the world to a standstill, anything is possible.

It is worth pointing out that, in terms of population density, Amsterdam is a village compared to Paris, with inhabitants per square kilometre coming in at around 4,500 and 21,500 respectively. Imagine if tourism was curtailed by the French authorities? There would be a riot.

I won’t be surprised if some other quirky political outcomes are pursued over the next year or so should we enter into a deep global recession, and this includes on the travel and tourism front, but it is difficult to see offbeat schemes working. Not when there is so much money at stake. Look what happened after the 9 / 11 attacks in New York in 2001 as an example.

If anything was going to discourage flying it was that shocking terrorist attack, but the absolute opposite happened, despite airport security being tightened up so much in the time since that, all too often, going through the airport feels as straightforward as making water run uphill.

In the years since 9 / 11, air travel has increased by a much greater rate than it did in the previous comparable time period: there were 4.2 billion air passengers in 2018, 1.66 billion in 2001, and a relatively puny 654 million in 1982. If we characterise the post-9 / 11 aviation industry as a battle for hearts and minds over fear versus money, money definitely won. It might give us some reassurance that the crisis facing the aviation industry at the moment is a relative blip.

Since the 2008 recession, we seem to have entered a period which future historians might characterise as one exhibiting increased nationalist sentiment. There has in recent times been some well-documented comparisons of the last ten years or so with the Great Depression of the 1930’s that preceded World War II, for example. To an outsider like me, it might seem like those Amsterdam politicians are displaying a bit of that same kind of inward thinking. For the sake of me and those like me, I just hope those same politicians don’t make it too difficult, or too expensive, for me to revisit one of my favourite cities.