Snowdon will be snow-free in 13 years, scientists warn

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The Independent Online

Those who originally named the peak spoke as they probably found it, calling it "Snow Dun", from the Saxon for "snow hill". But Snowdon may lose its snow cover within 13 years as a result of climate change, Welsh scientists say.

Snow has been disappearing for some time from the peak, the highest in Britain south of the Highlands, but the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) disclosed that this winter's accumulation is the lowest since records began 14 years ago. With only a couple of snowfalls this winter, the total depths measured are way down on previous years and, if the trend continues, any kind of the cover could disappear by 2020.

The loss of snow is already threatening the rare Snowdon lily, a relic of the last ice age, which relies on harsh winters to survive and is losing its habitat to bracken and other plants.

The CCW and the University of Wales, Bangor, plot the snowline - the lowest point at which snow settles - on a daily basis through the nine-month winter period from early September to late May, and compute a total. The highest annual total was 55,000m of snow in the mid 1990s, but the figure fell last year (2005-06) to 24,400 and this year's figure is on course to be substantially lower. The current total is 4,800m of snow, with only just over half of the snow season to run.

The warnings come three months after Scottish scientists warned that their country's ice-capped peaks would become a thing of the past. The average January and February temperatures in the Highlands have been rising by 0.3C every 10 years for the past 30 years. The last snow of last year on Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain at 4,406ft (1,343m), disappeared in September.

Dr Clive Walmsley, CCW's climate change adviser, said a September and October entirely free of snow in Wales had contributed to the low figure. "In the last two winters we have seen half the amount of snow recorded in poorest previous years," he said. "This year is dramatically worse than all the rest."

The loss of snow comes at a time when Snowdon is rebuilding its dilapidated visitor centre near the summit. But the absence of snow would also be a symbolic blow, since the snowline is one of the Cardiff Assembly's climate-change indicators for Wales, together with the onset of the first daffodils in bloom. This year, daffodils have been in bloom in the principality since the first week of December.

The First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan, has said that climate change is one of the "three great issues of the next half century." The Assembly discussed the issue of Snowdon yesterday.

Lembit Opik, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Wales and the MP for Montgomeryshire, said: "Snow-capped Snowdon has been an iconic Welsh image for centuries. It is shocking to think that in just 14 years, snow on this great mountain could become nothing but a permanent and distant memory."

The CCW predicts that the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains and the Cambrian Mountains will also be snow-free by 2020.