Weatherline Lake District Fell Top Conditions report Friday 28 December: Helvellyn summit at 12:05. Here we are, almost at the end of 2018, and still the Lakeland Fells are free from snow and ice. Other mountainous areas of the UK are not faring much better, with Snowdonia being as snow-free as the Lake District, and only a few parts of the Highlands having broken areas of snow…
Christmas has come and gone and, despite the frosty scenes on the cards I received over the past few weeks, there’s little sign of anything similar in the Lakes.
Like a long-awaited guest at a wedding who’s stuck on a rail replacement bus, the timing of winter’s arrival is anyone’s guess. It might burst into the room when least expected, dishevelled and quietly mouthing apologies. It might not arrive at all.
This is all the more remarkable given where the Lake District is located.
The circle of latitude which crosses this part of north west England slices through countless frozen landscapes in its journey around the world: the Baltic Sea; Lake Baikal in Siberia; the Kamchatka Peninsula; Alaska’s Aleutian Islands; and vast swathes of Canada.
And yet, despite being almost 55 degrees north, winters here are far more forgiving than would otherwise be the case, thanks to the toasty-warm influence of the Gulf Stream.
But that’s not to say that snow is an uncommon visitor.
According to the Lake District National Park Authority, in the valleys there are about 20 days a year when snow falls and ‘this can increase to as much as 67 days per year on top of a mountain such as Helvellyn’.
So what’s happening this year?
Where’s my snow?
The simple explanation is these things happen: some years the weather’s mild; some years the weather’s cold.
‘Suck it up’, as my American friends say.
Perhaps author Douglas Coupland has more of a point when he says: ‘you can’t get mad at weather because weather’s not about you’.
I don’t own the weather I want; I just rent what’s available from time to time.
Unfortunately, at the moment, there’s next to nothing on offer from the UK winter showroom. Worse, the rental shop seems to have a little less on offer with every passing year.
If truth be told, the coldest season of the year is starting to look a bit shopworn. My winter mountaineering kit all too often turns out to be a triumph of optimism over reality.
Although I’m sure that something will turn up in 2019 — it always seems to eventually — I’m less optimistic about what will happen in, say, 2025 or 2030. The Met Office reports that last summer in the UK was the joint hottest on record (together with 2006, 2003 and 1976). On a global level, the WMO says that the 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years.
Greenhouse gas concentrations are once again at record levels and if the current trend continues we may see temperature increases 3–5°C by the end of the century. If we exploit all known fossil fuel resources, the temperature rise will be considerably higher: WMO Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas
Something is clearly afoot.
Of course, it’s not just the UK and the Lake District which are seeing the effects of climate change: less and less of the Alps are covered in the white stuff.
In the Mont-Blanc massif, the period of snow cover at mid-mountain elevations has decreased by nearly a month since 1970.
And this pattern isn’t likely to stop any time soon.
In 2017, the Journal of the European Geosciences Union, the Cryosphere, predicted that the Alps could lose as much as 70 per cent of their snow cover by the end of this century.
Even taking a glass-half-full attitude, the Union’s best case scenario is a loss of 30 per cent of snow cover during this period.
I witnessed the effects of a warming earth last summer, when I attended a talk on the Mer de Glace glacier, near Chamonix, on the impact of climate change.
Donning crampons and scuffed helmets, a group of mountain enthusiasts and I crunched up and down this remarkable river of ice with Ludovic Ravnael, expert in permafrost and rock formation, and Luc Moreau, glaciologist at the Université Savoie Mont Blanc.
They told the group that the high mountains are warming up much quicker than elsewhere: up to two to three times faster.
Since the 1930s, the temperature in Chamonix has increased by about 2°C, against an equivalent increase of about three quarters of a degree globally.
The Mer de Glace is melting.
Every year it retreats a bit more up the valley and shrinks a bit more in height.
In the surrounding mountains — a spectacular, otherworldly amphitheatre of saw-toothed peaks — melting permafrost is making many of the mountains crumble. Without the ‘glue’ that holds them together, whole sections of mountainside are collapsing. Many climbing and trekking routes are now too dangerous to use.
Getting to the surface of the glacier from the train station isn’t becoming any easier either.
Journalist Helene Fouquet wrote that when she visited the Mer de Glace as a child in 1988, it took ‘just three steps’ to reach the ice. When she returned in 2015, it took 370.
Only a handful of years after Fouquet’s article was published, the operator of the rack railway to the glacier, La Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, tells visitors that there are now 500 steps down to the glacier.
That’s about a dozen flights of stairs more — in less than four years.
The mountains are changing in front of our very eyes.
Streams tumble down the tips of ice fields, as if the glaciers are crying themselves to death: Diccon Bewes
If the outlook for alpine glaciers look bleak, the long-term forecast for snow doesn’t look much better.
Recently, there’s been a flurry of articles and books on its demise.
Like the slow bleaching of a postcard exposed to the sun, snow seems to be fading away.
The current diagnosis, according to many, is along the lines of, ‘I’d sit down if I were you, I’m afraid it’s not good news.’
The New Yorker Magazine started this year in a grim tone, predicting a bloody season finale for the ‘last snow we’ll see on earth’.
Journalist Giles Whittell doesn’t help snow lovers either.
In his latest book, Snow: The Biography, he says that while the complexities of climate change mean more snow at higher elevations for a while, in the long run placing your bets on snow isn’t a wise move.
Whittell quotes Raymond Pierrehumbert, expert on climate change at the University of Oxford, who predicts, “you can get some quite big blizzards up until the year 2040, but between 2040 and 2080 it starts to get too warm to have much snow at all and it gradually sort of peters out.”
The context of Pierrehumbert’s analysis is the American Midwest, but this glimpse into a possible future suggests a world where, for most of us, winter ceases to be.
So where do we go from here?
Pretending nothing is happening?
To be fair, I’ve often indulged in both.
I’ve also been too complacent, having done some things right: I don’t, for example, run a car and use trains as my main way of getting around. And when there’s no trains, I walk.
I try not to buy stuff I don’t need. I try equally to fix what I have, as opposed to flinging it straight into a black bin bag at the first sight of something shiny and new.
But I fly. Like a pious tee-totaller who abstains from the grog during the week only to binge at the weekend, I ruin much of my good work. The inconvenient truth is that my carbon footprint balloons in size with a winter flight to the Alps or a summer trip to northern Norway.
I am desperate for some good news about aviation and its environmental impact. Please someone say that they got the figures wrong. I have always loved the freedom and access flying brings — who doesn’t? — but in recent years have descended into a near-permanent depression about how to square this urge with the role of at least trying to be a responsible citizen of the planet. Leo Hickman
So 2019 has to be the year where I commit to doing more.
My CO2 footprint, even with the flights I took last year, is less than the UK average (according to WWF’s carbon calculator), but I know that I need to get it lower. There’s little doubt that when taking a train the difference in CO2 emissions, in comparison with flying, is staggering. Should I let the TGV take the strain when heading to the Alps? The answer looks clear to me.
On the domestic front, a few months ago, after checking out the Protect Our Winters UK website, I switched to a renewable energy supplier. I now use Bulb and, so far, it’s cheaper than my previous supplier (the company reckons that it is “15% cheaper than standard Big Six plans”).
The next challenges are to find financial services providers that invest responsibility and to eat less meat (experts say that we should aim to eat just one portion of beef, pork or lamb a week).
There’s lots to do and time is running out.
In a world of almost eight billion people, it feels as though the impact of the change the world needs of me — despite my occasional attempts at self-aggrandisement — would amount to the square root of nothing.
I’m not so sure.
I think that the little things that we all do do add up.
And if we all do something then perhaps — just perhaps — there’s still hope for the coldest season yet.
PS Talking of fixing things, please do get in touch if you know how to fix a broken waterproof zip on an Arc’teryx jacket!