A snowy start to spring: perspectives

It’s been an odd start to ‘spring’ 2018.

At the beginning of March, much of the UK lay under a blanket of snow, and even here in balmy Cornwall we weren’t safe from the disruption reeked by Storm Emma – the so-called ‘Beast from the East’. The Met Office issued severe weather alerts – the ominous Red weather warning – for many parts of Scotland and England as temperatures fell below -10’C, and blizzards and snowdrifts reeked havoc on our transport networks.

That said, there’s no denying the excitement I felt as the first flurries of snow set in late morning on March 1st – ironically the first day of Meteorological spring! And whilst the conditions only lasted a little over 48 hours in the Falmouth area, the storm system certainly had a pretty widespread impact in the area, both to humans and wildlife alike.

Two weeks later, just as the Daffodils, Snowdrops, alder Catkins and Lesser Celandines thought the worst was behind them, another icy blast from the continent hit. As the first of the summer migrants arrived – Swallows, Sand Martins and Wheatears – we were once again subject to freezing temperatures, blizzards and snowstorms.

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Daffodils subdued to the conditions

Meanwhile in the Arctic (where it’s meant to be cold), you’d be more comfortable walking around in a t-shirt. The region experienced its warmest winter on record: in February, the most northerly weather station at the tip of Greenland spent more than 60 hours above freezing. Prior to 2018, scientists had only seen temperatures rise above freezing in February twice before. The extent of sea ice hit record lows too: covering 521,000 square miles less than the 30-year average.

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Daily Arctic temperature above 80’N in the Arctic for 2018 (red line), compared to the 1958 – 2002 average (white). More info on Science Daily and Live Science

Meteorologists and climate scientists believe these freak Arctic conditions and icy continental storms are inextricably linked, and might signal a weakening of the polar vortex. This weather system is a circle of strong winds that keeps the Arctic cold by deflecting other air masses to the south. The vortex depends on the temperature difference between the Arctic and lower-latitudes. But with unprecedented warming in the poles, this gap is shrinking. A weakening divide results in the vortex sucking in warm air from the south and sending out more cold fronts like those we’ve been experiencing in the UK this month.

If you’d like to find out more about the complex interactions driving our weird spring wather, Greenpeace have a good explainer article here.

There have been some upsides to the conditions though…wild weather in early March uncovered an ancient forest normally hidden beneath a few tonnes of sand in northeast England. The ancient stumps and felled logs revealed by Storm Emma of a woodland more than 7,000 years old! Check out the full story here

Returning to Cornwall, I’ve mostly been glued to my laptop screen: working on my dissertation, big third-year assignments and planning our Sail Against Plastic expedition. That said, I have occasionally been able to venture out and enjoy the wintry conditions, though not nearly as much as I’d have liked!

Here is an account of myself and Jack’s experience during those exciting few days of wild weather, based in the arctic interior of our caravan on the outskirts of Falmouth…

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our humble abode, located a few miles out of Falmouth alongside four other static caravans

Jack’s account

Caravans aren’t built for snow

A couple of weeks ago a climate oddity occurred in Cornwall – alongside the rest of the country – but certainly more of an oddity in Cornwall: it snowed. Heavily. I was delighted to see the snow! It kindled memories of my childhood: having snowball fights at the bus stop in my village (up north), hoping the bus would not show (which meant a full day of silly antics with friends, instead of going to school). There was serious enjoyment when this occurred.

In this month’s mini ice age, I tried to make as much use of the snow as I could. Ben and I went out on a couple of morning walks and even went sledging with our caravan neighbours! Despite the magical white landscape appearing in the Cornish landscape, naturally, it caused an outcry from the professional UK complainers : NEWS WARNING: RED ALERT – it’s almost comical, isn’t it? The lack of infrastructure in this country barely being able to withstand three days of snow. Our two conglomerate superstores in Falmouth, Tesco and Asda, were literally running out of food too. Cars were neglected and left on the road, as people abandoned ship. Both university campuses even had to close. RED ALERT.

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cars frantically abandoning ship at campus before the worst set in
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the road leading up to the caravan site

But how did these conditions affect myself and Ben in the caravan? It was during this time that I realised caravans aren’t designed for freezing conditions. First of all: our taps froze, which meant no water. I never actually realised how vital water was (don’t laugh) – not obviously just for our hydration, but to wash up your dishes, brush your teeth, shower, flush the toilet (you can imagine the scale of our predicament now) and most frustratingly of all: not being able to have my morning coffee.

It deserves a mention: waking up at -1C is not cool man, it is not cool. Waking up to the mist of your own breath appearing in front of your face; my skin literally started chapping because of the cold. Our washing up liquid froze, which was no use anyway (no water to wash up – remember?), but so did our olive oil. A slight oil residue was left for us to cook with, thankfully! If we were to thank one resource in the caravan though, it has to be our log burner. Ben had the genius idea of collecting snow outside in one of our pans and heating it on the fire, but we didn’t realise the amount of snow it takes to fill up a single mug of water. My Aunty commented: the current antics occurring in the caravan sounds like an episode of Bear Grylls; maybe, except we weren’t acting in front of a camera, and there wasn’t a luxurious hotel waiting for us at the end of the day (I joke, but he did get accused of doing this when not being filmed).

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Our novel source of water for a few days…

With the university being closed, it meant I had some restrictions on work which needed to be done. So I spent most of my time working in the caravan, but on occasion went for a walk out into the cold. Ben had spent more time out in the snow, so in this blog, I’ll be sharing some of his pictures.

I did, however, realise what the unpredictable and arduous weather meant for the birds. As I walked (or should that be slid!) into Falmouth, I stopped to watch a struggling Firecrest, trying to find safety from the cold as well as trying to find food. It was a horrible sight to witness, but I could not do anything about it, except share my empathy for its struggles. Being there no insects to eat, these small birds immensely struggle with the cold conditions, not being able to find enough insects for food, and being prone to die simply from from the cold itself. Firecrests are visibly more abundant down in the south-west than anywhere else in the UK, due to the warmer climate and not having to withstand snowy conditions in the winter. So when it does snow like this, they’re extremely vulnerable. I started to think about how climate change affects this country and its ecology, with a rising number of floods and weather oddities such as this, lives are unequivocally at stake.

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Goldcrests are Europe’s smallest bird species, weighing in at a mere 5 grams. Like Firecrests, they visibly struggled to find their insectivorous fare in the Arctic conditions. I watched this bird picking tiny midges off the lake surface and scratching around in the earth to find enough food!
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it can’t get much more cliche, but then this isn’t mid-winter either! A Robin in the snow…whilst they cope a little better than obligate insectivorous species, being able to make use of seed and fatballs placed out by garden bird lovers, they still struggle from the cold itself…
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One of the unlucky ones…a Song Thrush having succumbed to the conditions.
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Redwing

The thaw of the snow…

We enter the woods: ‘There’s something about the calm of the storm’. The sun was out, and like Ben said: there really was an atmosphere of beauty and calm after the recent weather oddity. Before we got to the woods, though, we came across animal footprints in the snow which was a quite interesting to observe, here are some blackbird and badger footprints…

 

In the woods, I was focusing on photographing the lichen and plant life on the trees, as well as the trees themselves, for a project I’m currently working on. After the recent unfortunate experience with the firecrest, it was a relief to hear the glorious calling of the birds, all going crazy for food and the feel of the warmth after surviving the snow storm. Oh, the joys of being a sentient animal at this point.

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Great Tit’s ‘tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher’ song was amongst those filling the air after the relative silence during the snowstorm

Apart from the inconveniences, the snow might have caused for myself, Ben and everyone in the UK, I think snow should be appreciated for its stunning aesthetic, enjoy it for what it is; rather than getting upset because it inhibits your journey to work. It could be worse! You could be a bird.

Above: some of the amazing patterns in icy puddles dotted around the nearby fields

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A female Blackbird in the snow
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Gorse flowers brightening up the otherwise monochrome landscape of snow

Jack Burton photography: http://jackburton.zenfolio.com/

Ben Porter wildlife: http://www.benporterwildlife.co.uk/

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