Climate change will significantly decrease snow and increase flooding in Scotland

Two new reports funded by the Scottish Executive have found that snow cover in Scotland has decreased significantly since the 1970s, and predict a steady increase in the likelihood of flooding over the next eighty years.

According to the report Climate Change and Changing Snowfall Patterns in Scotland, further decreases in snow cover are expected, and the reported decrease in snow depth and duration is also being experienced in Canada, the United States, Australia, and continental Europe. The result has been a negative impact on winter tourism, as well as on mountain habitats and seasonal flood regimes of mountain rivers, although there have been benefits to communication and access to land.

By 2080, there will have been an 80% decrease in snow at low altitudes in Scotland, but only 20% at high altitudes, according to the report, with the greatest decrease being in Fife, and the smallest in Tayside. This means that Scottish winter tourism will have to adapt to less reliable snow cover, including an improvement to access to higher elevations. However, the frequency of blockages by snow drifts will also be decreased, making transport systems more reliable.

“There are many people who feel that climate change is a good thing,” said Deputy Minister for the Environment and Rural Development Rhona Brankin. “They think of it in terms of better summers and shorter winters and certainly this report has highlighted a pattern of reduction in snow cover in Scotland in recent years.”

“But an understanding of the effects of climate change – in this case on snowfall – shows that for many areas of Scottish life, including aspects of the environment and the leisure and tourist industries, things are going to get worse,” said Brankin. She added that the study has identified some ways in which different sectors may be able to adapt to changes in snowfall, and will be of interest to those regularly affected by snow.

The authors of the second report, Climate Change: Review of Levels of Protection Offered by Flood Prevention Schemes, predicts that major river flooding events which are presently likely to occur with a 1% probability each year, are likely to have doubled in frequency by the 2080s. The researchers also predict that coastal water extreme levels which had a 1% likelihood of occurring in the 1990s will be five to ten times more likely by 2050. However, the report suggests that coastal defences would only need to be heightened by 10-30cm to return the level of protection to the 1990s standard, but future schemes for flood defences should be capable of being further raised or advanced.

“The floods that hit parts of Scotland late last year focussed attention on the need for all local authorities to look at their preparations in the event of flooding,” said Brankin. “Just because an area avoids the worst one year does not mean it will be unaffected every year. And evidence from research like this suggests that more needs to be done to deal effectively with the increased likelihood of flooding as an impact of climate change.”

However, the researchers stress that, due to a lack of suitable climate change data, the report’s findings should only be taken as a provisional estimate of the future with significant uncertainties.

Both reports are available from the Stationary Office, price £5 each.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie