Looking back on climate change: a mountaineer's musings

Posted by Rab Carrington on 08/02/2017
A glacier calving in Patagonia. Photo: Shutterstock / iladm

What changes in the landscape have experienced mountaineers seen over the years? We asked Rab Carrington to think back and pen his thoughts for this year's Show The Love campaign.

I have been spending the long winter nights this year sorting through my climbing slides from the Seventies, looking through the past to secure it for the future. It is a reflective task and I can’t help but think about the changes I have seen in my years in mountaineering. I gaze on images of the South Face of Yerupaja and wonder if it is still a climbable snow and ice face or if it is now reduced to a chossy rock face. After making the first ascent of the North Face of the Gletscherhorn with Al Rouse, we then had the unenviable slog down the Aletsch Glacier – at the time the longest glacier in Europe. How much shorter1 would our walk have been nowadays?

As an older mountaineer, I have witnessed clear signs of changes in the climate; weather comes and goes but winters are not what they once were. Though born in 1947, I cannot recall the hard winter that occurred 70 years ago, though images easily spring to mind of 20-foot snow drifts and cut-off houses across the UK. In Chamonix, in the 70s, the Mer de Glace flowed serenely down to Montenvers and access to the glacier was easy. I recall in the early 80s Al Rouse skiing down Guest Road in Sheffield and endless weeks of perfect ice climbing conditions in Wales. I apologise for letting nostalgia get the better of me, but it is obvious to any older mountaineer that we are living in an age of global warming and the landscape is changing.

The cold, hard facts

Now I don’t want to confuse my anecdotes with evidence, but I am not the only one to have noticed changes in the mountains. We readily note in the Alps the widening Bergschrunds and the bare rock where once it was ice. Spending time in Snowdonia or the Cairngorms, you get accustomed to rapidly changing weather. And with the evidence of glaciers all around you it is not hard to imagine a time when the climate in Britain was very different to how it is today. It is easy to imagine that all this change is natural, but the consensus is that the changes we are experiencing are faster and more severe than natural processes alone can explain.

WATCH: Conditions apply: winter climbing ethics on BMC TV

Last month, NASA announced that 2016 was the warmest year on record2 and the ten warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2000. I am sorry to be putting this in front of you once again, but the facts bear repeating. Firstly, the evidence shows that global temperatures have risen3 markedly in recent years. The result of this warming can readily be seen in the Alps where ice melt has caused massive rockfall on the Petit Dru. Secondly, there is evidence that concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have increased over the same time period, from 280ppm to 400ppm a rise of 40%. Finally, the climate science which shows that the observed temperature rises are being driven by our greenhouse gas emissions, over and above other factors4. Further to this, many signatures of a green house gas driven warming are observed, including higher night time temperatures, warming of the atmosphere from the ‘bottom up’ and observably reduced infrared radiation escaping our atmosphere.

In the face of such news it’s easy to feel daunted, like you are being asked to act alone and that no progress is being made. But the truth is that good progress is being made and action is being taken all around the world.

WATCH: Nature and climbing in Wales on BMC TV

Energy: it all adds up

Over the last decade, our domestic usage of energy has been falling steadily and is down 19% since 20025. This has come about due to more efficiency in the running of our electrical appliances, better insulated homes and modern heating systems. For example, take the simple matter of lighting your house, using energy saving bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs can reduce the energy usage by 75% or as they used to say in my youth; “Mony a mickle maks a muckle6.” Without individuals making these small changes, we would not have seen the reductions in energy use that there have been in recent years.

Electricity production is largely dependent on the burning of fossil fuels and hence a great contributor to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, we should be heartened by the increase in electric energy from renewable. In 2011, 8% of our electrical energy came from renewable, growing to 22% by 20157. This progress is partly driven by the increasing competitiveness of wind and solar power compared to fossil fuel alternatives but it also requires a level of political support.

Show The Love

The BMC first became involved in the Climate Coalition in 2015. Show The Love, organised by the Climate Coalition, is an annual celebration of all that we love but could lose to climate change. It is part of an ongoing effort to protect the people, places and life we love from climate change by encouraging world leaders and the UK Government to shift to clean and secure energy within a generation.

WATCH: #ShowTheLove

Unfortunately for walkers and climbers who value their freedom and getting to remote corners of the country, the next paragraph doesn’t make easy reading: exhaust fumes from our cars are a big contributor to the green house gases in our atmosphere. I’m afraid I couldn’t recommend that you do things which I am not prepared to do myself. I will still be seeking out those remote climbing areas we all love, however, from now on, I will keep a closer eye on the mpg on the display panel. Also, I will be thinking more carefully about sharing transport when I go climbing. Maybe, in this risk adverse world, it is an opportunity to return to that old skill of hitch-hiking. A final thought on this matter; “Is there a car share app for climbers?”

Rab's resolutions

So, in a nut shell, my New Year resolutions for 2017 and onwards are three fold:

  1. Make my house as Energy Efficient as possible.
  2. Embrace Renewable Energy sources even though it may change our landscape.
  3. Make my travelling as efficient as possible.

These are small things that we as individuals can do. It is up to the politicians to ensure that industries are supported so that they can develop the technologies which will bring about non-fossil fuel cars, carbon capture, improved batteries and grid systems and all the other things which we haven’t yet thought of.

[1] The Aletsch Glacier has retreated 3km in the last 140 years and this is accelerating.
[2] NASA & NOAA data goes back to 1880; other data suggests that the Earth hasn’t been this warm for 115,000 years
[3] In the last 150 years average global temperature has risen by 1deg C. This is half way to the 2 deg increase where climate changes will be dangerous
[6] “Many little things add up to a lot.”
[8] Sustainable Energy; without hot air by David JC MacKay. This is a must read book on the topic. His early death is a sad loss to all who value this civilisation. Also available FOC at www.withouthotair.com

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1) Anonymous User
13/02/2017
I'm sure few reading here would disagree with Rab about the terrible threat posed by climate change. But although wind power and other renewables sound like a good idea, the reality is that they are bound to have little impact.

For a start, there is no way we can reduce CO2 emissions simply using supply-side mechanisms – a key component is obviously reducing demand. However, the power businesses building the new infrastructure have no incentive whatsoever to do anything serious about the latter – their continuing profitability is built on encouraging more and more consumption.

Even if consensus was reached on demand, renewables are simply not a sensible or practical method of meeting it. For instance, using figures from the renewable industry itself, even if every nation in the world decided that, say, just a sixth of future energy generation should be produced from wind sources by 2035, and there was world agreement on stabilising annual energy usage at 30 Terrawatts globally in the future (which would require most developed countries to considerably reduce demand but allow developing countries a modest increase), it would still require a full-sized 3MW turbine to be built every three minutes starting right now for 25 years. About 2% of the entire land surface of the world would end up being covered with wind turbines.

And yet that would still leave over 80% of our energy needs to be filled, most likely by old-fashioned fossil fuels and nuclear.

Which makes the current turbine developments utterly redundant. Instead, they are simply making a few very wealthy people even richer, and causing serious damage to biodiversity and landscape.

Opposing large-scale renewable development is entirely compatible with wanting to combat climate change. If you actually care about the environment and ecology you can’t rationally do anything other than oppose this pointless industrialisation of the countryside.


2) Anonymous User
14/02/2017
if you go on youtube and search 'ice-age leonard nimoy' you will find him narrating the 70s scare of global cooling.in it there are scientists examining ice cores and predicting the next ice-age will come in our life time.
3) Anonymous User
16/02/2017
co2 is a harmless, beneficial trace gas, essential for life on earth. it cannot change the climate.
4) Anonymous User
17/02/2017
There's a lot of scare stories put about by scientists who should know better. The World's climate has ALWAYS been changing. 40,000 years ago the Rhone Glacier reached Grenoble, two thousand years ago there was a Roman Road over the Theodule Pass - now deep under ice. - and the Romans had vineyards all over southern England, as we are now starting to do again . In the Dark Ages cold, wet conditions in Central Asia to drove the Huns westwards, prompting invasion of Britain by Angles, Jutes and Saxons. Later, in the Middle Ages the Vikings grew corn in Greenland while the inhabitants of the Valpelline drove their cattle over the Col Collon to market in Sion - the Col, now under ice, is now a vital link on the HLR. Five hundred years later there were frost fairs on the Thames, the Viking settlements had disappeared and the alpine glaciers advanced ( yet again ) . Major volcanic eruptions can cause decades of low temperatures, tilts in the Earth's axis can cause global warming of several degrees. Anyone seriously interested should read current RGS president Nicholas Crane's recent book' Making of the British Landscape'. .
5) Anonymous User
17/02/2017
Great to see someone as well-known and respected as Rab recognizing the reality of climate change and suggesting practical steps to reduce our own contribution to it. However, it is strange that he makes no mention of air travel which is widely accepted to be the biggest source of carbon emissions in the average person's life, the effects of a long-haul flight far outweighing any energy-saving measures in our homes or car-sharing for journeys to Wales or Scotland. Cutting down on the number of flights we take a year is the most significant step we can take as individuals.
6) Anonymous User
22/02/2017
co2 is not a pollutant, it is a natural gas that is essential for life on earth. co2 makes up only a tiny part of our atmosphere, 400 parts per 1000000, 384 parts are from natural causes and 16 parts are released by human activity. there is no need for anyone to worry about their carbon footprint.
25/02/2017
co2 can effect the climate? I don't think so
8) Anonymous User
07/03/2017
never let science, facts or common sense get in the way of a ridiculous scare story that doesn't have a shred of evidence to back it up.
9) Anonymous User
08/03/2017
nice to see this censorship, any climate realists are breaking the house rules. anyone who uses true science has their comment removed.
13/03/2017
Perhaps this is a worthwhile read:

https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27022017/global-warming-permafrost-study-melt-canada-siberia

A sobering reminder of the impact that warming has on remote areas and the potential for methane release, as CO2 is not the only gas which can cause climate change.
11) Anonymous User
28/03/2017
Really i appreciate the effort you made to share the knowledge. This is really a great stuff for sharing. Keep it up . Thanks for sharing.

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