Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Fionn Bheinn Skitour (Achnasheen)

Still very cold; skitouring conditions are excellent but motoring is sometimes challenging. The remote control for unlocking my car met a soggy end some years ago, forcing me to open it with a key like everyone used to in the old days. This old-fashioned ritual becomes problematic when all the locks are choked with ice. Last week at Cairngorm I was fortunate enough to have some warm dregs in my flask which I used to free up the lock. When I got back to the car after a thirsty Sunday morning skitour my flask was empty but with a little cunning I was still able to use its contents to open the door!

Fionn Bheinn is an outlier of the Fannichs whose peathagged slopes rise above Achnasheen. It's not the most inspring hill I have ever climbed but it is both a short ascent and very accessible, being within an hour's drive of Inverness  This makes it a great choice for around the solstices; either as a quick hit on a summer's evening after work or, as I experienced it on the 27th, an excellent skitour for the short days of midwinter. It is at its best when the peat hags that scar its slopes are filled with snow, but its isolated position makes it a fine viewpoint at any time of year.

Slioch from the summit of Fionn Bheinn.

The ridge of Liathach caught  the early morning sun as I ascended Fionn Bheinn. Beinn Eighe is to the right

View towards Slioch from Fionn Bheinn

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Thursday, 24 December 2009

Short review of 'The Wind Farm Scam' and a bit of skiing

Welcome to the Christmas edition of my blog. It certainly feels like Christmas round these parts, we've had lying snow for well over a week now. The photo below is of  snow-laden pine and willow.

I was very pleased that last week's post elicited a response from David Mackay, the author of the book  'Sustainable energy - without the hot air'. I referred to his book in a previous post in which I declared my general opposition to the development of windfarms in upland areas. I have spent the last week reading the recently published 'The Wind Farm Scam' by retired ecologist John Etherington. His fundamental objection to wind energy as currently pursued is that it does little to reduce carbon emissions; because wind is fundamentally unpredictable and intermittent, other sources of power are required to pick up the slack when the wind drops. Wind energy makes a lot of sense if a method of storing the energy generated when the wind was blowing is available; for example as chemical energy in the batteries of electric cars or as potential energy in pumped storage hydro schemes. Feeding the energy into the grid makes much less sense because you need to have backup for when the wind stops blowing. If this backup takes the form of fossil fuel fired power stations then the carbon emission reductions claimed by the wind lobby are drastically reduced; Etherington claims they are reduced to the point that there are no savings.

I agreed with much of what Etherington had to say on the shortcomings of wind energy and found his discussion of the incentives used by government to promote it very illuminating. Unfortunately in the latter portion of the book he devoted a chapter to questioning man made climate change. His central objections were that there is no clear-cut relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and global mean temperature in some portions of recent history; that the medival warm period was not preceded by a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and that little ice age ended without a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. His book would have been stronger had he avoided straying from his area of expertise in this manner.

Predicting the future is never easy - all manner of things other than  carbon dioxide concentration affect the climate. This run of cold weather is consistent with the prediction made earlier in the year that an atmospheric effect known as the North Atlantic Oscillation may serve us up a series of colder than average winters in the coming decade. The sporting opportunities have certainly been first rate this week. The photo below was taken from the summit of Cairngorm on Tuesday, looking westwards.

Today I had my first outing on Nordic skis at the excellent but little known Slochd Nordic Ski Centre just south of Inverness on the A9. I'd never tried this lightweight and efficient method of winter travel before but I am now massively inspired to do a bit more. It is far better suited to much of the local terrain - for example  the rolling plateau of the Monadhliath - than heavy alpine touring gear.

All this snow may be great for winter sports enthusiasts, but spare a thought for the animals such as this unfortunate bunny on the trail at Slochd. Before anyone asks I didn't bring it home to eat.  I have enough turkey and chipolatas to keep me going!

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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Some photos from around Inverness

I've got myself a better camera as part of an effort to improve my photography. Below are some photos taken around Inverness last weekend. 

Wind turbines above Farr, to the west of the A9 just south of Inverness. Having laid down my objections to the piecemeal development of wind farms in my last post I decided to confront the contraptions face to face. It's actually quite difficult to object strongly to this particular development. Having thought the whole windfarm issue over in more detail I came to realise that when David Mackay highlighted the impossibility of completely satisfying our energy demands through renewable sources he was thinking of Britain as a whole. When I find a spare half hour I will put my republican hat on and repeat his calculations for Scotland alone. Perhaps it is really England that  needs to build nuclear power stations.

These sandmartin nests in a sand bank near River Findhorn at Ruthven reminded me of cliff dwellings. The bank was slowly renewing itself, shedding its outer skin as the sun's rays melted its frosted surface.

Mallard drake at the mouth of the River Nairn.

The night sky before the peak of  the Geminid meteor shower. You can make out Pleiades, the small cluster of stars above the tree. I wasn't lucky enough to to catch any meteors in any of the 40 or so photos I took but we did see a few reasonably impressive ones.

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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Windfarms, Sustainable Energy and Biodiversity

The run up to the Copenhagen climate talks has provoked a rash of anti windfarm chat on the outdoor blogs. I've decided to join in and air my reservations about the wind farm frenzy that is currently sweeping the nation. I wrote the text below in response to a post of Chris Townsend's but  decided to give it an airing here too.

Anyone interested in the windfarm debate would do well to read David Mackay's book 'Sustainable energy: without the hot air'.   You can download a pdf version for free using this link.

In the book he estimates how much energy we can create from renewable sources and compares that to the amount we require. His conclusion was that even if we go all out down the renewable route (area the size of Wales covered in land based wind turbines, offshore wind turbines along entire Atlantic seaboard, tidal in every suitable location, pumped storage hydro in every suitable location, lots of clean coal etc) there is still a gap between what we can generate and what we require. This gap needs to be filled and - however unpalatable it may seem - the best way to fill it is probably to build more nuclear power stations.

My question is this: if we are going to have to build more nuclear power stations anyway,why bother polluting the hills with wind farms? Should we not just bite the bullet and build the nuclear power stations? This is an important debate and one that is currently being stifled by the feel good factor created by the construction of highly visible - but ultimately ineffectual - wind farms.

Windfarm development currently under construction above the Orrin Reservoir near Inverness. Photo taken from Strathfarrar ridge.

This week's Guardian Science Weekly podcast provided a further point to throw into the mix. It featured an interview with biologist and conservation campaigner EO Wilson in which he put forward the view that there is currently an over emphasis on saving the physical environment (reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate global warming) but insufficient emphasis on saving the living environment (preserving habitat and hence biodiversity, which is being lost at an increasing rate). 

Wilson's point was that if we shifted focus onto the preservation of the living environment it is likely that these actions would also have a beneficial effect on the physical environment. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. He calls for intergovernmental action on biodiversity loss along the lines of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

You can hear EO Wilson present his case by following this link.

There is no doubt that these are interesting, important and contentious topics. I will be using this blog to explore them in more detail over the coming weeks.

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Monday, 7 December 2009

Perlerorneq and Periglacial Trimlines

Have you ever become so disenchanted during the dark winter months that you've felt the urge to chomp on a dog turd? Me neither, but it does happen. Canine coprophagia is a symptom of perlerorneq, the Inuit name for sickness of life in the dark months. I was introduced to this condition  through Barry Lopez's engaging account of the social and natural history of the arctic regions, 'Arctic Dreams'.

It's pretty dark in here in Inverness at present, but I've managed to stave off the urge to scoff any sled-dog's stools by following through on my earlier threat to use the long evenings to brush up my knowledge of Scotland's geology and geomorphology.

This week I have been reading the excellent Geographical Society publication 'Classic landforms of the Assynt and Coigach area' by Tim Lawson (ISBN 1 84377 017 2). It's a slim volume but it contains exactly the kind of information that I've been looking for; detailed maps showing the movement and extent of the ice sheets during the last (Late Devensian) period of glaciation.

I'd previously assumed that the whole of Scotland was encased in ice during the last ice age, but while reading 'Hostile Habitats' earlier in the year I learned about the periglacial trimline. This geomorphological feature - which can be traced on many of the mountains of the Northwest - is a line marking the maximum extent of the last ice sheet. Below the periglacial trimline the rock has been scoured by glaciers; above the periglacial trimline the rock remained exposed and is often heavily frost-shattered as a result. These exposed peaks are known as nunatuks. If you're lucky enough to have a window seat on a transatlantic flight you may be treated to a view of present day nunatuks poking through the Greenland icecap. The nunatuks of Coigach and Assynt are shown in the figure below.

Devensian ice sheet in Coigach and Assynt. Reproduced from Classic landforms of the Assynt and Coigach area, Tim Lawson, Geographical Association, 2002  

This tremendous little look also contained a diagram showing the extent of the Loch Lomond Readvance glaciers, formed when the climate cooled again about 11,000 years ago. Most of them are where you'd expect glaciers to form, in high north facing coires. One of them, the one near Stronchrubie, just south of Loch Assynt in the map below, seems strangely located. I'm looking forward to examining the site in more detail next time I'm up that way.

Location of Loch Lomond readvance glaciers in Coigach and Assynt. Reproduced from Classic landforms of the Assynt and Coigach area, Tim Lawson, Geographical Association, 2002 

Sadly only three of the eighteen titles in the 'Classic Landforms' series deal with Scottish areas (Skye and Loch Lomond being the other Scottish titles). This seems a pretty thin representation for the country  in which the subject of geology was born.

Finally, if, like me, you enjoy a bit of beaver action, have a look at this.

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