Posted by & filed under Mountains & hills, Science, July 17 2007.

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.

31 Responses to “Ciste Mhearaidh and even more about climate change and walking in the mountains (zzzzz…)”

  1. Jack Lint

    You should read State of Fear by Michael Crichton. Maybe not the best book ever written but he does raise some interesting points with regards to glaciers and the whole climate change circus.

  2. Eddie

    Dr David Evans, then of Glasgow University’s Geography and Topographical Science Department (now at Durham, I think), made a prediction in 2000 about the Breidamerkurjokull glacier, in southern Iceland:

    “…it’s got about five or 10 years before it recedes right back and breaks up into thousands of smaller icebergs.”

    Seven years on, how is his prediction doing?

    He also says this in the 2000 CNN report:

    “It really is not a human-induced situation.”


    “What we are seeing now is more to do with natural evolution than global warming.”

  3. Eddie

    There’s lots more about the media and science bias on this topic on this website:

    I’m sure a climate expert would say this is very much a personal website of a non-specialist, and they would probably point out that some of what it says is wrong, but what it does do is link to lots of news reports that provide a lot of food for thought in this area.

  4. Eddie

    Yet more confusion about climate change from scientists:

    This BBC news article states that some scientists claim that the northern hemisphere will cool in the next decade or so – but that global warming will still happen after 2020. They may well be correct, but one thing is for sure, if this cooling does happen, every non-scientist in the world will never believe anything any scientist (of any description) ever says to them again.

    And how does that square with this BBC news article which states that the arctic will be ice-free by 2013?

    Once again, we have two sets of respectable scientists coming to completely contradictory conclusions.

  5. Eddie

    According to scientific research summarised in this BBC news article, the amount of Arctic sea ice that has remained after summer melting has been increasing in the two summer periods since a high point in summer 2007:

    What struck me about this article was the headline:

    ‘Pause in Arctic’s melting trend’

    This headline makes the implicit assumption that the recent increase in summer ice cover is a ‘blip’ and the the decrease will continue in the coming years. But how do they know this?

    And indeed, in the article they quote a scientist, Walt Meier, as saying:

    “The question now, he said, was whether 2007 turns out to be a “high-melt blip”, or whether 2009 turns out to be a “low-melt blip” – which will not become evident until next summer at the earliest.”

    So if the scientist involved in producing this research (wisely) doesn’t want to commit himself to predicting what will happen in the coming summers, why does the BBC news article ignore this cautious approach and use a headline that indicates that this summer is indeed, a ‘low-melt blip’, with no justification whatsoever?

  6. Eddie

    I’m still interested in finding out how Dr David Evans’ 2000 prediction of the fate of the Breidamerkurjokull glacier in Iceland in 10 years’ time is doing (see comment from August 2007 above), and I found this recent article about the glacier on the Daily Mail website:

    Now, the Daily Mail is a pretty ridiculous newspaper and I don’t regard it as a credible source, but I can’t find any other recent reports about the glacier on the web.

    The article itself and the accompanying photos are incredibly confusing – has the glacier receded or advanced?

  7. Bernhard

    Science that is useful must be testable, repeatable and falsifiable. I’m skeptical of claims that predict conditions for a chaotic and complex climate system 20 years ahead because the claims are not falsifiable in the short term time scale when we are supposed to act on the consequences of these beliefs. Trusting that computer models are able to capture the complexity of climate is for arrogant fools.
    But I have other problems with the science the most important of which is climate sensitivity. The greenhouse effect of CO2 and other gases is repeatable in the lab and shows a diminishing returns relationship with higher concentrations. The IPPC models all rely on feedback mechanisms that produce such huge climate sensitivity and the claim of a runaway system of feedback that leads to armageddon.

    Other problems with the science:
    on the hockey stick

  8. Eddie

    As far as I’m concerned, this whole thing just gets crazier and crazier. It’s no longer about science, more about faith and belief – which means that having debates about this topic using reason, rationality and good scientific principles will get someone precisely nowhere.

    I’m currently reading this book about climate science:

    The author is not someone in the pay of large oil companies or the US republican party, and does not seem to be any sort of conspiracy theory nutter. The book references a huge amount of scientific detail from peer-reviewed papers that have been published in reputable journals (e.g Nature) and comes to the conclusion that AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warning) is not a scientific reality and owes more to politics than anything else.

    This article from the BBC website seems to really put the boot into the whole idea of AGW:

    And you can see the inevitable tit-for-tat response to this BBC article on the Guardian website here:

    And for sheer comedy value, this Guardian news article sums it all up for me:

  9. Eddie

    And on it goes…

    From the Met Office: December 2009 was the coldest in the UK since 1995.

    I’m definitely guilty of ‘cherry-picking’ data and news items in this blog and the subsequent comments, but there’s a tidal wave of stuff that seems to contradict or at least put in doubt some of the claims made for Anthropogenic Global Warming and the science behind it.

    And yes, one cold winter in the Northern Hemisphere doesn’t mean global warming isn’t happening and neither perhaps does two subsequent cold winters, but when does it become a trend?

  10. Eddie

    Eskdalemuir weather station in Dumfries & Galloway has just recorded its coldest December since records began 100 years ago. The 12 months of 2010 at the station were the coldest since 1986. Temperatures in July 2010 never rose to 20 degrees C or above:

    From the Met. Office: December 2010 was the coldest December in the UK since records began in 1910 and the coldest month since 1986 (and the coldest month since 1947 in Scotland).

    When does this become a trend? When does weather become climate? I’ve now been recording these UK cold weather events for over 3 years.

  11. Eddie

    BBC news article about some recent UK research which suggests an explanation (varying solar UV radiation) for the last 3 years of cold weather events in Northern Europe (and which I have made many comments about on this blog entry over the last four years or so).

    This research is consistent with the recent trend of global warming as it suggests that the cold weather events are caused by air circulation and temperature redistribution, and hence are events that are localised on the Earth’s surface, not global.


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