IT’S probably Britain’s snowiest place, with vast accumulations of the stuff most winters, snow patches which usually last all year, and three of Scotland’s five ski resorts.

But scientists have warned that by 2080, climate change could mean there will be years when the Cairngorms have no substantial snow cover at all, even in the depths of winter.

They say snow cover has halved since 1969, and the trend for the past 20 years of increasingly erratic snow cover will continue for the next 20, before a steep decline will bring a snow regime much more like that of the Peak District in England’s north midlands.

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The forecasts by the team from Scotland’s Rural College, based in Edinburgh, are based on temperature readings from Balmoral since 1918, and a series of observations of mountain snow levels from Whitehillocks in Angus on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms, over a 36-year period.

The Balmoral readings showed an average increase of 1.6°C for the autumn months, with warmer springs also a feature. The Whitehillocks observations show snow cover falling from 100 days a year to fewer than 50.

The team crunched these statistics with the Met Office’s “business as normal” forecast for climate change, presuming little or no substantial change in outputs of climate-changing gases, and global temperatures increasing around four degrees Celcius.

Mike Spencer, one of the authors of the report, titled Snow Cover and Climate Change in Cairngorms National Park, said the mountains were “the canary in the coal mine” warning us of the impacts of climate change.

And he said if there was no action to prevent climate heating, the changes would wreak havoc with the environment and the country’s skiing industry.

The paper suggests winter floods could be more frequent and more severe as any snowfall that did occur would be quickly melted by subsequent rain, bringing far more water into rivers at a time than rainfall alone could bring.

Salmon fishing would be impacted as the temperature rises, with fish unable to spawn in summer water not cooled by snow-melt. It could mean carbon stored in the soil would be more easily released, rare alpine flowers that depend on snow cover could be wiped out, and drinking water supplies could be impacted as more water flows into rivers in winter, and less in summer.

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The report was compiled for the Cairngorm National Park Authority, which will consider its implications later this week.

But the forecast may make anyone investing in the ski industry in the area think twice – £10 million is needed to repair the funicular, the main means of uplift, at the Cairngorm ski resort, and other resorts in the area will need upgrades to keep running.

Spencer warned that the forecast report should come with a string of caveats, such as being based on the “business as normal” model – if the international drive for reducing climate change gases succeeds, the future could look very different.

But, based on the forecasts used, he said: “Over the next couple of decades we will probably continue to see what we have seen for the past couple of decades, this increase in variability where we have some very snowy winters and some winters with nearly nothing at all. Then we will most likely go through some sort of temperature threshold which will mean the snow is far less likely to lie. Precipitation is less likely to fall as snow and if it does it won’t stick around.”

He said the prediction of snow-free years in the mountains by 2080 mentioned in the paper was just one possibility, but added: “There’s an academic paper about skiing in Australia called The Canary In The Coal Mine, which is a really neat phrase to sum up how we look at the temperate climate, winter sports and snow cover.

“It’s easy to understand the big story of huge volumes of ice-loss in Greenland and Antarctica, but there are things happening much closer to home and it doesn’t take much change for that impact into be felt.

“So the loss of snow we’re seeing in the Cairngorms is for us the canary in the coalmine, a warning of what could be to come.”