The Sphinx: Cairngorms snow patch explained - why is it the longest lasting in the UK, what caused it to melt?

It’s not just the Sphinx, other sizeable snow patches are disappearing on other Scottish mountains

The UK’s longest lasting patch of snow has disappeared for “only the eighth time in 300 years”.

The patch of ice, nicknamed “the Sphinx”, sits on the north facing side of the remote Braeriach in the Cairngorms, the third-highest mountain in the British Isles.

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The patch, shielded from the sun for much of the year, has only fully melted six times in the last century, but has melted away more frequently in the last 18 years.

According to records, the Sphinx previously fully melted in 1933, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2017 and 2018, and before 1933, it is thought to have last melted completely in the 1700s.

Here is everything you need to know about it.

Why has it melted?

Snow patch expert Iain Cameron said climate change was a likely factor, and told BBC Scotland that historically the Sphinx was the UK’s “most durable” snow patch.

But he said: “That is being challenged because it is disappearing more often.”

Cameron, who has been studying snow patches in Scotland for 25 years and is author of the book The Vanishing Ice, said warmer weather due to climate change “seemed to be the logical” explanation.

And it’s not just the Sphinx, other sizeable snow patches are disappearing on other Scottish mountains, including Ben Nevis.

The climate induced results for this are twofold.

Firstly, warmer average temperatures mean the snow patches are more susceptible to melting.

Secondly, with less snow falling in the first place, the patches are failing to meet the size and volume of previous years, again making them more likely to melt.

Cameron said: “What we are seeing from research are smaller and fewer patches of snow. Less snow is falling now in winter than in the 1980s and even the 1990s.”

Why is it called the Sphinx?

The beating heat of the Ancient Egyptian desert and a snowy peak in Scotland couldn’t be further apart - at least from a temperature standpoint.

So why has the snow patch been given the name, the Sphinx?

It is actually named after a climbing route near the snow patch.

What else is affecting the Cairngorms?

In December 2020, a report found that air pollution is having a “devastating” impact on some of Scotland’s most globally important species and natural habitats, according to a new report.

The Plantlife paper, commissioned by the Scottish Government, found that 80% of land within special areas of conservation – such as the Cairngorms – now have intolerable nitrogen levels.

Pollutants in the air from transport, power stations, farming and industry were shown to be directly damaging the country’s unique biodiversity.

Alistair Whyte, head of Plantlife Scotland, said: “The effects of air pollution on health are well documented with industry traditionally the key culprit.

“But nitrogen deposition is also rapidly devastating our iconic habitats and the impacts of this invisible enemy are still not being recognised with sufficient urgency.

“Alarmingly, we are now finding that habitats perceived to be furthest away from the source of air pollution, such as the unique rainforests of the west coast, are on the borderline of reaching their nitrogen thresholds from far-reaching emissions.”

Globally important lichens and mosses of temperate rainforests, many of which are found nowhere else in the UK, are particularly at risk from nitrogen deposition and are already at high risk.

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