THE climate emergency has finally reached the roof of the world.

Around Everest and in the wider Himalayas, vegetation is sprouting, with newly grown grasses and shrubs threatening the delicate ecosystem.

This could, in turn, lead to even more warming, increasing the risk of flooding and the already dramatic rate of glacier melt in the region.

More research is needed, and no-one is going to be slogging up the world’s highest mountain in shorts and singlets quite yet.

But it is another potentially disturbing sign of the scale of climate disruption in some of the world’s most ecologically sensitive snow zones.

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Closer to home, there is also some early evidence of the potential disruption caused by climate change in mountain areas.

A study of snow cover in Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park indicates that there has been a general decline over the last century or so. This decrease appears to be proportionately greater at higher elevations, with an earlier onset of melting. An observed temperature rise of between about 0.8 and 1.6 degrees centigrade may influence snow timing and formation.

More worryingly, the study – carried out by researchers at the James Hutton Institute and Scotland’s Rural College and commissioned by ClimateXChange at the request of the Cairngorms National Park Authority – suggests that the decline may accelerate substantially from the 2040s onwards. Changes in climate could be detrimental not just to Scotland’s sub-Arctic environment, but also to the local economy.

Two million people visit the park – which represents 6% of the country’s land mass – every year and it is one of the leading locations for winter sports.

The park authority is taking a proactive approach, putting together a greening policy and giving climate change a central role in its forward planning. The area is also ideally placed for carbon reduction programmes such as peatland restoration and creation of woodlands.

One of the authors of the new report, scientist Mike Rivington of the James Hutton Institute, explains that it is intended as an initial assessment of the risks of changes in snow cover in the Cairngorms.

“It’s a fairly modest study in terms of the resource and time available. I looked at Balmoral as an example, to see what had changed in the past – it’s a very good site as we have high quality data going back 100 years.

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“We looked at what had changed in terms of temperature and rainfall over winter periods and also examined UK snow cover. There’s obviously a lot of natural variation – you can have a really good snow winter one year and then nothing the next - and that fits with normal patterns. But there are definitely warming trends going on in the background in terms of maximum and minimum temperatures. That is projected to carry on in the future.”

The warming of up to 1.6 degrees recorded is consistent with other surveys done around the world, as is the growing difference between maximum and minimum temperatures.

Mike Rivington stresses that this is just an early, top-level study. Snow is a difficult thing to model and assumptions have had to be made.

To gain a clearer overall picture, microclimate variables such as the passage of high and low pressure systems and the influence of the Gulf Stream would need to be examined in greater detail.

There will still be the possibility in the future that you get the right conditions for snow formation – the increased temperature means there could be more moisture in the air - but that probability does seem to be decreasing significantly.

“The data is showing that under the warmer conditions we will get around 2040, the possibility of snow falling in the first place will reduce, or it will melt more rapidly.” T

he study did not examine what these changes might mean in terms of the economic landscape and leisure usage of the Cairngorms.

“To really get to grips with those questions – and they do have large economic and environmental consequences - there needs to be an examination at another level of detail.

“What we can say is that the future conditions are likely to decrease the probability of snow overall, though with the caveat that we are still likely to have conditions where it can fall. There will still be the possibility of having quite substantial snow cover in some years.

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“In terms of what this study is showing, there are big causes for concern. As an indicator of change, snow can actually be quite useful. It does have significant consequences in terms of the way ecosystems function.

“By the 2060s or 2080s, we face the prospect of having winters with no snow, and that will impact things like hydrological systems and river flows. With a two and a half to three degree temperature rise applied on a global scale, we have a fairly catastrophic collapse in ecosystems.”

Grant Moir, the Chief Executive of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, says: “It is crucial that the assessment of snow cover is considered as part of the wider work on climate change with implications for hydrology, biodiversity as well as the local economy.

"There is much good work already being done in the park from woodland expansion and peatland restoration to new infrastructure for active travel and renewable energy development, but this needs to be scaled up to help tackle the climate emergency.”