Climate change affecting the Cairngorms


Climate change impacting on avalanche risk.

Forecasters of avalanches assert that the likely effects of climate change are being observed high in Scotland’s mountains.

According to the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, conditions were shifting at a faster rate and avalanches were occurring more quickly.

It stated that named storms, like 2021’s Storm Barra, brought brief, significant periods of “proper winter,” increasing the risk of avalanches.

Temperatures have frequently risen and snowfall has decreased after storms.

However, SAIS cautioned that even during those “leaner” times when there was less snow, there were still potential dangers, typically higher up toward the summit of a coire, gully, or mountain.

Mark Diggins, coordinator, stated: “In Scotland it has always been a harsh climate in winter, and things can happen pretty quickly.

“That is something we are continually trying to pass on to folk coming out into the hills and who might not appreciate they are pretty much entering a sub arctic landscape.”

But he added: “I would say what we are experiencing now is really rapid changes from one extreme to the other, both in terms of temperature and wind speed, and in the snow amounts.

“For us putting out forecasts, which are offered for a 24-hour period, the hazard could be considerable when we put it out and then the next day it has all been transformed and its a lesser hazard.”

Over the past few weeks, it has been evident that the conditions high in Scotland’s mountains have changed quickly.

Over the weekend, temperatures rose and significant snow loss occurred after days of snowfall.

In the six mountain areas that SAIS monitors, the potential avalanche hazard went from “considerable” to “low” almost immediately.

Forecasters in Torridon said that rivers and burns were at levels usually seen after a lot of rain, but this time they were swollen by melting snow.

SAIS Lochaber reported rapid temperature rises in the early hours of Saturday, and the Northern Cairngorms team mockingly referred to Monday’s conditions as “tropical.”

Since then, the various teams have reported yet more falling temperatures.

According to Mr. Diggins, data from the Met Office indicated that the average January/February temperature on the summit of Cairn Gorm, one of Scotland’s most popular mountains, had increased by two degrees over the previous 30 years.

He said that the snow line, which is the line between snow-covered and snow-free ground, seemed to be getting higher up mountains, which was another likely sign of climate change.

Avalanche risk on mountain slopes is assessed by SAIS forecasting teams using internationally accepted criteria.

The majority of the work is done in the hills, and part of the job involves digging holes into large areas of snow cover, or snowpack, to find cracks in snow layers that could cause an avalanche.

Because they have detailed forecasts and information from previous field observations, SAIS teams have a very good idea of what is going on in the mountains.

According to Mr. Diggins, visitors to the hills had previously been able to recognise “cues,” or indications of potential danger, as soon as they set out.

But he stated: “What we are seeing generally speaking is the snow line, that was quiet low in the past, is now much higher so we are not seeing those cues that we generally got to start thinking about any avalanche hazard.”

This season, there have been nearly 90 avalanches, compared to 162 the previous winter.

The number of avalanches recorded by SAIS over the previous 13 winters ranged from 90 in 2016-17 to 350 in 2013-14.

From mid-December to mid-April, SAIS provides daily avalanche hazard forecasts for six regions: Lochaber, Glen Coe, Northern Cairngorms, Southern Cairngorms, Creag Meagaidh, and Torridon.

The areas include popular summits like Cairn Gorm, Liathach, and Buachaille Etive Mr, as well as Britain’s highest mountains, Ben Nevis, Ben Macdui, and Braeriach.

Hamish MacInnes, a legendary Scottish mountaineer known as the “Fox of Glencoe,” started the service. Since the 1980s, it has been run in its current format.

On its website and an app, SAIS provides daily avalanche hazard forecasts.

It uses colours to indicate the probability of an avalanche, with green representing a low risk and black representing a very high risk.

In addition, there is a “rose,” a chart that depicts the distribution and altitude of potential avalanche hazards, as well as a set of symbols that assist in explaining the issue.

Before embarking on excursions into the mountains, Mr. Diggins stated that it was essential that individuals investigate the reports in great detail to comprehend the potential danger posed by avalanches.

Research suggested that Scottish winters were changing, according to Dr. Mike Spencer, who works with the Smart Data Foundry at the University of Edinburgh on financial and climate challenges.

He stated that the Snow Survey of Great Britain, a dataset compiled between the 1940s and the middle of the 2000s, had documented a decrease in the number of days with snowfall since the 1990s.

Dr. Spencer stated, “Since the snow survey ended there have been a handful of very snowy winters, 2009/10 and 2017/18, but many winters the snow cover has been less consistent than in the past.”

He stated that climate change was anticipated to result in higher average temperatures and more variable weather in the future.

Dr. Spencer elaborated: “This changeable weather is likely to mean periods of intense precipitation alternating with drought conditions – something we’re already seeing more frequently.

“In the mountains rising temperatures are likely to mean less days of precipitation falling as snow, and when it does the duration it lies for will be reduced.”

He said that climate models said that Scotland would probably still have winters with a lot of snow, but that this would probably happen less often over time because of warmer average temperatures.


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