Trees taken down by storms, washed-away roads, dried-out waterways, bins blown through the air, a rise in the number of clegs, and disrupted ferries. These are among the observations collected by Highland Adapts as part of a project to map climate change in the Highlands through the public’s eyes.

The aim is to help build knowledge that will help the region adapt to future climate change impacts and direct investments. Project manager of Highland Adapts, Emma Whitham said: “Adaptation needs so much more attention because change is real and happening now. We’re so caught up in the net zero agenda, but adaptation is also necessary because we as a community or as a region are vulnerable"

The intention of the project is, said Ms Whitham, “to weave in lived experience, rather than taking solely the academic approach to the issue.”

Already fifty different stories observing the impact of climate change have been marked on the map, which will be built alongside a programme of academic research. But, Highland Adapts would like to see more.

A spokesperson for the initiative said: “To add the real-life experience to the academic modeling data we are gathering peoples climate stories, highlighting how our business, buildings, communities and natural capital is already being affected. We invite everyone to share their lived climate experiences to help us paint a picture of the key climate risks and opportunities from across Highland.”

Contributions range from descriptions of damage to buildings and flooding of a home and a cinema to observations about the change in the behavior of animals and disruptions to the Glenelg-Skye ferry.

Some of the stories described relatively minor irritations. One contributor noted that during windstorms they had trouble “keeping my bins from falling over” and expressed concern about the “spread of litter” or the possibility they might “damage someone’s car in the street”. Another described a flagpole being blown off. Others talked of “extensive destruction of local forest” and the disappearance of snow in winter sports tourist areas.

The Herald:

Homes were left without electricity during Storm Arwen

Highland Adapts is gathering this information to inform adaptation and resilience strategies – and to find out where investment is required. The initiative describes this as “an ambitious and transformational approach to climate change adaptation, with a climate risk and opportunity assessment methodology that is deeply rooted in climate and social justice to ensure nobody is left behind.”

Among the key areas of climate change impact, said Ms Whitham, are the 4900km of coastline in the Highland area. Already the Dynamic Coast project has researched the impact of rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and increased storm surges. “The work,” she said, “has highlighted where those most vulnerable coastlines are. For example, Golspie and Coul up in the North East of the Highlands have been identified as a vulnerable area that needs investment.”

There is also, already, a Scottish Government project supporting Climate Action Towns, two of which, Alness and Invergordon in Rosshire, are in the Highlands. The towns were chosen for both their vulnerability to climate change risks and where they sit on the index of multiple deprivation. The chief risk to these towns is flooding.

Storm impact is a key focus in the research, for due to climate change, their frequency is increasing. Ms Whitham said: “The severity of storms might not have increased, but it’s how frequent what would have been something like the 100-year storm has become a ten-year storm. If you think about the infrastructure that exists around our coastline, within Highland we’ve got 91 harbours or marine facilities. It’s thinking about how do we protect those lifeline pieces of infrastructure?"

The Herald:

Storm Arwen tree damage

Increased storm surges are also likely to bring increased treefall – and with that road blockages and damage to buildings and other infrastructure. “Organisations,” said Ms. Whitham, “like Forestry and Land Scotland and Transport Scotland are spending millions of pounds now on dealing with fallen trees – and it’s not just the fallen trees themselves that are the problem. The land is becoming unstable and huge rocks are falling onto main roads like the A82 which would be a big lifeline for us.”

Decline in winter snow, due to climate change, is also impacting the tourism sector – and one contributor noted that he was more likely to need sunscreen than crampons in recent winters. A report by the Cairngorms National Park Authority said that there was “likely to be a substantial decline in the number of days of snow cover” by 2030. The research suggests  that sufficient snow for downhill snowsports is going to become an increasingly rare occurrence.

But snow, said Ms Whitham, also has other impacts. “What’s also interesting about snow or the winter is that we are seeing a pattern of quicker freeze-thaw and the impact that then has on roads and the impact that has on river catchments having to cope with the very quick snow melt. The capacity for nature as well as our built infrastructure to cope with the changes, that’s certainly a pattern hat’s increasing – the quick cycling between the hot and the cold.”

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There are also stories of impact of weather on burns and waterways, ranging from burst banks and floods to heat and drought. One Inverness-based contributor described how “in summer 2022 the Holm burn near Dores Road dried up for a few months."

"I’d never," they said, "seen this happen to the burn before. I found it quite astonishing as the burn has quite a deep channel.”

Another contributor described a local burn bursting its banks, observing, “Our drive was washed away in a few minutes. The remedy was to install a storm drain! I never thought that would be necessary for the highlands.”

“Globally,” said Ms Whitham, “we don’t think of Scotland as being a nation that has a risk of drought – and yet we’re not that far off it is a real serious situation. In Highland, people are starting to notice and speak about small water courses being dry for most of the summer and that being something that was rare and is now common.”

Also of concern is the increased frequency of wildfires during periods of heatwave like the one that is warming Scotland, and which has triggered wildfire warnings, right now. One study found that between 2014 to 2020 there was a near-consistent increase in the number of wildfires recorded each year in the UK – a trend linked to changing climate.

The Herald: Braemar road damage


Braemar, road damage, PA

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The change in climate, however, doesn’t just impact us humans and our infrastructure. Some contributors reflected on changes they had observed in wildlife due to changing climate. “When I moved here almost 40 years ago winter temperatures of minus 10 to minus 20 Celsius were not very unusual - but exceptional now. Plants that didn’t flower until February now start in November and species of wildlife that were very much “southern” in their distribution are now becoming frequent around here. Future generations will feel the worst effects - I am much less concerned for myself.”

A report published last year by the UK Climate Change Committee stated that Scotland’s climate is changing, "but action to adapt to critical impacts such as wetter winters and rising sea levels has stalled, posing risks to people, infrastructure and business".

The Highland Adapts map is still open to contributions. The aim of the project, said Ms Whitham, is to get as broad a range of contributors and stories as possible. “We are trying,” she said, “to reach as wide a range of people in Highlands as possible and uncover the experiences that people are having. What is happening in people’s homes and businesses? You hear anecdotal things like farmers saying positive things about the season extending. Or growers of gardens. There are positive things to come out of climate change – and these exist as well as the negatives, both of which are already happening.”