Ever since my first real mountain walking trip, to the Cairngorm plateau, I have been fascinated by the idea that in Scotland there can exist at high altitudes, even in the summer months, a small portion of the arctic. This trip was in June 1983, and the Cairngorm plateau then truly was arctic in nature, with very large permanent snowfields. Now, in 2007, things seem different – see my previous posting ‘Has climate change already affected hillwalking in Scotland and further afield?‘ and this Independent newspaper article from December 2006.
As I’ve learned more about the Cairngorm mountains and Scotland’s geological history, glaciers have come to be a bit of an obsession with me. Part of it I think, is the idea that their marks are everywhere on the Scottish mountains, but the glaciers themselves are conspicuous by their total absence. It seems somehow that the Scottish mountains are missing a component of what makes them dramatic and scenic. Photographs of ice-covered mountain ranges in other countries only make this absence more keen.
The appeal of glaciers is also in their natural beauty and scale and they seem to almost be alive as they brood in mountain corries, slowly changing the mountain landscape, and swallowing unwary mountaineers in hidden crevasses. Walking in a mountain environment that contains the hazardous beauty of glaciers is a true adventure and spectacle. Scotland is tame in comparison.
The first glacier I ever visited was the Athabasca Glacier (photo) in the Canadian Rockies. This glacier is easily accessible (you can drive close to it on the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park, which I’m hoping to return to this June) but I have since been to more inaccessible glaciers in Norway, namely Styggebreen (near Galdhøpiggen – photo), the Snøhetta glacier (photo) and Kjenndalsbreen (photo). I have also done some guided walking on the Glacière de Ferpècle in Switzerland (photo).
The mountains in Norway in many ways look similar to Scottish mountains, so to go walking there gives one a good idea of what Scotland used to look like. Indeed, the mountains there have a similar climate to Scotland and are only a little bit higher in altitude and latitude – and a tantalisingly short airline flight from the UK can transport you into a surrogate Scotland with an extra glacial dimension.
As I noted in my previous posting ‘Has climate change already affected hillwalking in Scotland and further afield?‘, I also still harbour an ambition to see the glaciers on the summit of Kilimanjaro – although a BBC report last week stated that some scientists believe that the prevailing theory that this glacial ice will disappear before 2020 may well be wrong.
Seeing glaciers in the mountains for real and up close has made me feel even more that walking in the Scottish mountains, especially the glaciated environment of the Cairngorms, is in some ways a bit odd. Glaciers are an unspoken, invisible presence, but their absence is tangible and ghostly.
Scottish glaciers can seem tantalisingly close, perhaps more so than some people realise. Permanant, year-round (or ‘perennial’) snowfields give birth to glacial ice, and there used to be several of these in the Scottish mountains, particularly in Lochaber and the Cairngorms. There’s an interesting discussion about this in the book ‘Scotland’s Winter Mountains‘ (now out of print). I have vivid memories of visiting the large permanent snowfield in Coire Domhain on the main Cairngorm plateau on that walk in June 1983, and also of seeing large patches of summer snow in An Garbh Coire from the summit of Braeriach in September 1994.
According to some geological and historical evidence, there may even have been some glacial ice in Scotland (presumably in the high corries of the Cairngorms) as recently as the late 17th century. The altitudes at which glaciers can exist in Scotland is only a few tens of metres above the highest points in the Cairngorms (around 1300m above sea level), and a climate swing of 1 or 2 degrees centigrade would cause glaciers to start forming again – although of course current climate change seems to be going in the opposite direction to that required.
I’ve always thought that the relatively obscure St. Mary’s Glacier in Colorado is a good example of what a potential Scottish glacier might be like. This feature is halfway between a permanent snowfield and a true glacier and the equivalent in Scotland would only take a few years to form. These pictures of the glacier from Oct 2005 show that the ice is only just permanent. The Colorado Rockies are perhaps surprising in that they only contain a few small glaciers (the Arapaho being the largest at only 0.24 km2 in surface area) despite having altitudes in excess of 4000m, presumably due to the latitude.
In my lifetime, indeed over the last ten years or so, the permanent snowfields in the Scottish mountains seem to have essentially disappeared. Whenever I go walking in the Cairngorms, I always look closely to see how the high plateaux and corries are clinging on to their icy arctic environment (see my previous posting ‘Maiden Scotland and Geal-charn Mor‘), but it seems that the prospect of glaciers returning to Scotland is incredibly remote at the moment. I still can’t help holding out a perhaps forlorn hope though.