The ‘snow patch’ expert: “These would be the beginnings of glaciers”

Posted by Carey Davies on 10/04/2017
A tunnel formed inside a snow patch by running water on Carn na Caim, 2014. Photo: Al Todd

As spring spreads over the hills, many snow-lovers are left wondering what happened to winter. Iain Cameron, whose unusual hobby is monitoring snow patches that survive from one year to the next, looks back on the season and tells us what drives his curious fascination.

I first became interested in snow patches when I was nine. I could see Ben Lomond from my living room window and there was always a big blob left when everything else had melted. I would ask my parents ‘why is that still there?’, but they couldn’t tell me.

I don’t know why I find snow patches so fascinating. I suppose I admire them for their ability to survive against the odds. The human brain finds it quite difficult to process it when it’s a blazing hot July day and there are massive patches of snow.

Our information will be more useful in 100 years’ time. It takes a long time to build up a reliable picture of trends in climate. We hope the work we’re doing will provide future generations a much clearer understanding of how much snow was in Scotland, England and Wales.

I’m not an academic. It’s all done on an amateur basis. My day job is with an aerospace company. But our findings go into papers for the Royal Meteorological Society, which I’m now the lead author of. It’s a privilege to work with Adam Watson, one of Scotland’s most preeminent ecologists.

People are incredulous until they see pictures. I get some funny looks at dinner parties when I try to explain my hobby. People usually don’t get it until they see images of these amazing, unreal snow tunnels. But yes, to most of my family and friends, I am the object of some friendly ridicule.

Iain inside another snow patch tunnel in 2015. Photo: Iain Cameron

Snow patches would be the beginnings of glaciers.  Climatologists reckon with an average temperature drop of two degrees centigrade you’d start to see the beginnings of small glaciers in the high Cairngorms, which is the coldest part of Britain. But that’s unlikely any time soon.

The most snow patches we have recorded surviving from one winter to the next is 73. Some years you only get one or two.

Snow patches are a lot more interesting up close. From afar they’re just small blobs. But when you get close to them their characteristics completely change. You can walk inside them through these incredible tunnels caused by water and wind.

You don’t find snow patches in obvious places. They tend to be in tucked-away in corries on north-east faces. They don’t see many people over the course of a year. Just people like us, who go to visit them.

There is a proud tradition of British people doing slightly odd things. Fifteen years ago a group of British tourists were arrested in Greece on spying charges, sitting outside an airfield looking at planes. They said “no, no’ we’re on a plane-spotting holiday”. The Greek authorities said “don’t be ridiculous, no one does that”. But they were telling the truth.

Between 1996 and 2006 all snow disappeared in Scotland a total of three times. Prior to that it had only disappeared twice in recorded history. People had pretty much written off the Scottish winter. What we’ve seen since 2007 is a regression to snowier winters, with some huge years for snowfall like 2014.

But you would be forgiven for not noticing the last winter. Temperatures were two degrees Celsius above normal, and precipitation was a mere 60% of what you’d reasonably expect. The season was more of a lamb than a lion.

A snow patch on Zero Gully, Ben Nevis, in 2014. Photo: Iain Cameron

It made grim viewing for snow lovers. The ski season was extremely poor for the five Scottish resorts, and ice climbing very lean indeed. Also, for people like me, who monitor how many patches of snow survive from one winter to the next, this season is shaping up to be one of the poorest (and potentially shortest) in many-a-year.

By next winter, we could be looking at the first disappearance of all snow in the UK since 2006. Recent pictures I’ve seen of the hills around Ben Nevis and the Cairngorms suggest that if the summer and autumn of 2017 are anywhere approaching ‘normal’ (if that word is ever apt for Scotland) then there could be nothing left.

Of course, because this is Scotland, nothing is assured. Another cold summer (like 2015’s) would help prolong the snow’s life. A 2003-style one, though, will in my view kill all snow before September ends. Whatever happens, a roller-coaster season is assured for us summer chionophiles.

Follow Iain on Twitter. 

 

Other articles in this series

Mountain Rescuer: “Even experienced people can underestimate Snowdon in winter.”

Avalanche forecaster: "I wouldn't recommend being avalanched to anyone"

Mountain weatherman: "I think it's important to regularly experience what you write."


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