Ken Thomson

As part of its thinking about climate change, and in particular the future of skiing on Cairngorm, the Cairngorms National Park Authority commissioned researchers at the James Hutton Institute (JHI) in Aberdeen to study past and future snow cover – measured as area, not depth, over a number of days - in the Park. The report is available.

Cairngorm Mountain Webcam 25th March 2020

Since regular measurements have not(!) been taken at the 3 ski areas over the last few decades, the method used was first to identify possible correlations between observed temperatures at Balmoral, which has a long data record, 1918-2018, and snow cover at Whitehillocks, in Glen Clova. Then, Met Office climate model projections were used to estimate future snow cover in the Park out to the year 2080.

Over the years 1918-2018, the Balmoral records show increases in maximum and minimum temperatures for almost all months November to May, with the lowest monthly mean minimum temperatures warming from -5°C to -3°C. Precipitation was highly variable over time and between years. Since 1918, maximum winter temperature has risen by c. 1.30°C and minimum temperature by c. 0.71°C.

Snow cover at a range of elevations at Whitehillocks between 1969 and 2005 showed clear declining trends, as elsewhere. The drop in snow cover averaged 52.8 days across all elevations, e.g. from 150 days to below 100 days at 900m. Higher elevations saw a larger proportional decrease.

For the future, the “initial results show a reduction in snow cover as the observed warming trend continues and accelerates”, especially after 2040, with ever-shorter seasons. This will affect the ecology (including species) and hydrology of the Park. There are however substantial uncertainties, due e.g. to the sparsity of the existing data base, to the inherent complexity of snow modelling and prediction, and of course to alternative future climatic developments affecting the Cairngorms.

Some commentary (, 5 December) suggests that higher-level skiing investment at Cairngorm around the Ptarmigan station might be viable, but that input at the base station (such as the current snow-making equipment) is likely to be unwise in the medium and long term. It suggests focussing on Coire na Ciste, which has a better chance of holding snow, than on Coire Cas.

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