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  • Writer's pictureDirk

Mountains and no snow – climate change becoming obvious

We love mountains, we study mountains, and we hike in mountains. We have a bit of a tradition around the Christmas and New Years public holidays – we go hiking in the mountains, try to get a nice view on snowy mountain tops. About 10 years back, we had planned a hike to one of the many lakes with the name Bleu in the Ariegoise Pyrenees. We were unable to do the hike intended, as we did sink into snow just up to our hips. We decided to do a less perilous hike instead and hiked up to the Col de la Core. In the snow, it was not an easy hike. Hence that same year, we invested in snow shoes to be ready for the next snowy hike. We used them less and less… The changes in snow cover we have observed over the last 10 years confirmed what our colleagues of climatology predicted since more than 30 years.

View from Col de la Core Dec. 2012.

Then December 2022. There was a two-day period of cold, with morning temperatures of -5°C. That was the only winter we had so far… Since, temperatures increased and we had temperature records and temperature records. Around the public holidays, we had some time and continued our tradition to hike in nearby mountains, discovering new views, and staying away from our usual and well studied mountain lakes for a change. For the first hike we did, to the Col d’Araing at nearly 1400 m, we did not know what to expect, had pullovers, gloves, beanies and warm socks with us. We suffered… it was way too warm. Near the col we did see butterflies flying around. In December! At 1350 m altitude… We were annoyed by flies which were happy to nibble on our sweat. Arriving at the col, we found a group of sheep still on their “estive”. It felt like a late September. It felt like autumn, but it was supposed to be winter, it was the 25.12.22 after all.

Sheep near Col d'Araing - Dec. 2022

Our second end-of-the-year-hike brought us again to the Col de la Core. This time, we drove up there. No snow on the road. There was a bit of a wintery breeze at the Col, but that was about it. We had a hike towards the Bouriex estives, it felt like early autumn. Leaves everywhere, snow only in very protected and very small patches here and there. Nothing to get excited about, except if you are a kid, and had no snow at all this year.

Views from Col de la Core in Dec. 2022.

A remarkable observation was that there were many beech trees which have literally broken in half due to strong wind. I have seen this before, but that was in the tropical forests of French Guiana, where the wood is rigid and with too strong a wind they break. I am not a tree specialist, my readers do know that, but I am wondering (and those who can enlighten me, please go ahead), if flexibility of the wood of the beeches has been impacted by three dry years in the Ariegoise Pyrenees? Is this another effect of climate change, one which is not so easy to predict? Less water, less good quality of the wood, higher rigidity of the tree stems, and then with the high temperature differences stronger winds, which have the potential to create havoc in mountain forests? These were the questions I was wondering about and I have no answers to them yet (happy to hear yours).

Cracked trees

The hike was a nice one, but left me wondering on how 2023 will turn out, if we do not catch up with the snow cover… at the Col de la Core end of December, they should have been several meters of snow… none visible this year.

Our last hike of 2022, brought us to the Orle valley. It remained warm and snow cover on the mountains around us remained thin. The Lez river did shows it skeleton (= stones), deadly meager from the lack of water. That day, again feeling more like an early autumn, we waded through fallen leaves at places up to our hips. All leaves try and crispy. What will happen, if they are not covered below snow? Without water and humidity, they will not be digested, they will not return to the nutrient cycle, they will not create a new soil layer. They may simply be blown down the mountains in to the river beds.

Lets hope for a real winter coming, and fast, before the fruit trees start to flower, because they think it is spring. Yes, it might have some advantages to us to have high temperatures, but we still have not understood all the consequences, and consequences there will be.

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