News Access and Conservation news Cwm Idwal: Welsh winter monitoring system live and upgraded

Cwm Idwal: Welsh winter monitoring system live and upgraded

Access and Conservation news

In 2013 Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and the BMC set up the winter monitoring equipment that provides live temperature data of the turf in Cwm Idwal. Ten years later and we have been able to provide more funding to update the system that will make it more accurate and reliable.

What is the Winter Monitoring System?

The BMC Winter Monitoring systems give winter climbers live up to date temperature readings directly from the cliffs of the Devils’ s Kitchen in Cwm Idwal, Snowdonia. This helps climbers judge for themselves if conditions are suitable for winter climbing. These cliffs are within a National Nature Reserve which is designated to protect the nationally rare and fragile vegetation that’s found there. Climbing on turf that is not fully frozen or in marginal conditions when there is only a thin cover of snow and ice could damage these rare plants, which in turn could lead to formal restrictions on climbing activities.

Why are winter climbing and conservation linked? We ask a Horticulurist:

The recent funding was used to upgrade the monitoring post systems and as well as giving us accurate temperatures in Eryri (Snowdonia), these systems are used to help protect Artic Alpine Plants.

Robbie Blackhall-Miles, a Vascular Plants Officer at Plantlife explains the importance of this work and why using this equipment is so important and its links to other projects in Wales:

"The Tlysau Mynydd Eryri project forms just one of the many projects that make up ‘Natur am Byth!’ – Wales’s largest ever nature recovery project. At ‘Natur am Byth!’ (NaB)  working for the charity Plantlife as a Vascular Plants Officer, my job is to advise on the conservation of some of Wales’ most threatened plant species. Through this I lead on one of NaB’s area specific projects called Tlysau Mynydd Eryri (Tl.M.E.) or, in English, the Mountain Jewels of Eryri – a project that aims to change the fortunes for ten of the rarest Arctic Alpine plants that occur in Eryri, two of the rarest invertebrates, their habitats and the other species they share their habitats with. As a botanist, ecologist, and mountaineer I am privileged to work with Britain’s most special of habitats. The places where our Arctic Alpines grow are the rarest of UK ecosystems – those that have remained little touched or visited by humans. These Arctic Alpines are the plants that have been part of the British landscape the longest.

These special, and beautiful, plants are are more commonly found in either the Arctic or the Alps and are relics left behind after the last ice age. They are now threatened in Britain from so many different directions – Nitrogen deposition, inappropriate grazing, historic over collection, genetic bottle necks, the impacts of tourism and, most of all, human mediated climate change. The Climate Crisis is forcing these cold loving plants further into refuges; on mountain tops, cliff ledges and boulder tops. I can’t do much about climate change without the assistance of literally everyone in the world, I can however reduce the other pressures on these mountain species and ecosystems so they can be more resilient to it.

Unfortunately, one of the potential threats to our mountain jewels could be winter climbing in unsuitable conditions. It seems so unlikely that winter climbing would be an issue, yet it would only take a single poorly placed ice axe into turf that wasn’t sufficiently frozen for a whole community of rare plants, maybe a population we don’t even know exists, to be dislodged from their cliffside home. Such an accident might mean a significant percentage of a population of species like holly fern or alpine mouse ear disappearing in the blink of an eye.

We do have ways to prevent such a disaster happening though. There are resources available to help winter climbers to choose the best options for their day in the mountains including apps, blogs and even live updates from people’s social media feeds. In 2011 one of the best resources was published in the form of the ‘North Wales White Guide’ to Winter climbing – a small book that aims to help climbers to choose routes where the least damage may occur and to provide loads of information about why all of this is so important. Then in 2014 the very best tool in our kit was made available, the BMC and Natural Resources Wales set up the Cwm Idwal Winter Temperature Monitoring Scheme.

This scheme provides turf temperature data via the BMC website to mountaineers so they can assess when routes are in condition. Turf temperature data at 5cm, 15cm and 30cm is available for both 600m asl and 800m asl. Its helpful to thing of the data as information for different scenarios; 5cm for crampons, 15cm for axe placement and 30cm so we can understand when the deeper ledge turf is going to be sufficiently frozen in place on those ledges. It really should be the ‘go to’ tool that will help us all have the best experiences whilst considering our special upland plants and their unique habitat. What, for me, is more amazing about the scheme is that over the past 9 years it has accumulated temperature data for our mountains that we can now analyse to really understand the effects of climate change where Eryri’s Arctic Alpines grow.

The scheme over its nine years of life hasn’t always been as reliable as it could be. Difficulties faced by internet outages, power supply and transmission distance have meant that, on occasion, it hasn’t been available when it has been needed most. Hopefully, the kits recent upgrade should now solve those problems and provide a useful information point to inform our winter adventures. I enjoy winter mountaineering as much as I love those mountain plants, when we do get good winter conditions the mountains are where you will find me. Where you won’t find me though is in a wet gully getting cold and muddy when the turf is 0°C at 5cm but unfrozen, and possibly flowing, at 15cm – which, let’s face it, doesn’t really appeal much at all."