I thought I’d follow up my last blog posting, ‘Yet more about climate change and the media (yawn)‘ with some details of my recent personal experiences of ice and snow in the mountains. Last Saturday I walked up to the summit of Cairn Gorm via Coire na Ciste and Ciste Mhearaidh. Ciste Mhearaidh is a small east-facing corrie at an altitude of 1100m a few hundred metres to the northeast of the summit of Cairn Gorm and is very not well known. I had never heard of it until I read about it for the first time on the Internet here a few days before my trip and it is not often visited by the many walkers who go up to the summit of Cairn Gorm as it is invisible from the main path to the summit from the northern corries where the ski runs and funicular railway are.
What makes this corrie special is that it often holds a snowfield that does not entirely melt during the summer months, and when I walked up to the corrie on Saturday the snowfield was still quite large and impressively deep. It made for a startling sight on the otherwise snow-free plateau around the summit of Cairn Gorm, even in the gloom of the clouds that enveloped the whole of the Cairngorms mountain range that day. Ciste Mhearaidh is a candidate for a perennial snowfield in the Scottish mountains (see my previous posting, ‘Scottish glaciers‘ for more about this) that I was not previously aware of, and it will be interesting to visit it in future summer months to see how far into the year it can remain intact. One day the snow in this corrie will form the seed of a proto-glacier – when that happens is unknowable, but as I emphasised in my last blog posting, it has happened before, and it will happen again.
Despite this potential perennial snowfield, I have many personal experiences from hillwalking that vividly demonstrate that the snow cover in the Scottish mountains has unquestionably decreased in recent years. However, this may not be the case for North America. Last month I returned from the Canadian Rockies where I visited the Athabasca glacier, one of the most easily accessible glaciers in the world. Mountain glaciers (as opposed to much larger polar ice sheets) are often used as indicators of climate change and feature prominently in current media reports on the subject, so it was interesting to see how the Athabasca glacier was affected, particularly as I had visited it before in 1998.
The first observation I made upon walking to the lowest edge of the tongue of the glacier was that the glacier has not noticeably reduced in extent in the 9 years since I had last visited it. The second observation I made was that the extent of the glacier hasn’t actually reduced significantly since 1992 (probably about 15 to 20 metres at the most) – this is apparent in this photo, which shows a marker where the glacier reached to in that year. You can also see a Google Maps display of the glacier and the parts of it I visited here.
The Athabasca glacier receded by a very large amount from the late 19th century (when it blocked the whole pass that the Icefields Parkway now runs through) to about the 1960s. However, it has not receded by anything like the same rate in the past two decades. This is precisely the same period that the climate has been warming globally, but this particular glacier does not seem to be playing along with the supposed accelerating catastrophic melting of glaciers worldwide that media reports focus on. Some glaciers do seem to be disappearing rapidly, notably in the Alps and the Andes, but some aren’t, for instance in Norway.
Whilst in Canada I also climbed Pyramid Mountain (see my previous posting ‘Canadian Rockies #4; Hikes‘), and took a panoramic photo from near the summit showing the surrounding peaks. This photo was taken from an identical position on almost the same day of the year in June to one I took on my 1998 trip and you can see the photos here. The snow conditions on Pyramid Mountain in 2007 were more severe than in 1998 and were too difficult to enable me to reach the summit.
Of course, a comparison of snow cover like this over only 2 dates on one mountain is very unscientific, but there was much more extensive snow cover over the whole of the area of the Canadian Rockies I visited on my recent trip than on my previous visit – 9 years of global climate warming was really not all that apparent to me, especially when roads and hiking trails were still closed due to snow.
I had a similar experience when I visited the Sierra Nevada mountains in California in June 2005. That year, some of the main highways that passed over the Sierra Nevada (including the only route that passes through Yosemite National Park, the Tioga Pass) were not cleared of snow and opened until quite late in June, after I had left California (see a history of winter closure dates here). I was also unable to reach the summit of Mount Whitney in mid-June due to difficult snow conditions – the winter of 2004/2005 in California had produced unusually large snowfall depths in the mountains, and the trail to Mount Whitney was much more difficult than in previous Junes.
Of course, one of the effects of a warming climate is increased precipitation in some parts of the world – this will mean bigger snowfalls and a larger supply of ice for glaciers, even if the mean temperatures go up by one or two degrees, so it’s very difficult to draw firm conclusions from my experiences.
However, It is hard to take the media scare stories of vanishing glaciers meaning the end of life as we know it seriously when my own personal experiences differ from their own accounts. The media never seems to have stories about glaciers that have not changed in decades, or areas of the earth that are experiencing large snowfalls.
It’s even harder to take them seriously when the media unquestioningly uses images of glaciers disappearing to bolster the theory that this is a direct result of mankind’s recent industrial and transportation-related activities.