Field report from ECN Cairngorm, Scotland: the coldest and snowiest plateaux of UK

This post welcomes you to share my experiences on research field work at ECN Cairngorm and elsewhere in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, UK.

ECN Cairngorm, Scotland, in March 2019. ECN refers to the UK Environmental Change Network, which is UK’s long-term environmental monitoring and research programme. The ECN Cairngorm site is owned by the Scottish Natural Heritage, managed by the Center of Ecology and Hydrology, and has been the subject of intensive hydrological and snow related research. (For more info:

Cairngorms is the name of the mountain region and of the national park. The national park is a huge area with also many villages inside it. In this arctic-alpine mountain environment snow can fall any month of the year. Cairngorms is not only the place of the lowest recorded British temperature (-27.2 °C) but also the greatest wind speed, too. The Cairngorms Mountains within the ECN catchment (57°07’ N, 03°49’ W) rise above the treeline of 650 m with the highest peak of 1309 m. They are part of the Cairngorm National Park.

This sampling in the Scottish Highlands of the EU-Interact-BLACK project was planned with detailed maps well in advance, thanks to the kind help of my EU-Interact host Christopher Andrews. These maps really were a friendly and welcomed help! We then met directly in the field of the ECN Cairngorm site to find spring water, streams and snow there. It would have not been possible to find all these without his expertise of the area. The area has its challenges, too, including streams to be crossed over. 

Cairngorms and snow?

This photo of snow was taken inside ECN Cairngorm in March 2019. From far distance it appeared that there is hardly any snow, but when you climbed more up to the mountain, you got enough snow for a good sample.

Most important for a visitor is to realize that the weather can change suddenly and that a snowfall today can last either long or be melted rapidly. This was exactly what we  experienced: when planning the field work with the help of Chris, the snow statistics showed that end of March is a good option for sampling snow; it might be still non-melting cold snow or could be melting snow. This year, however, a record breaking warm February melted practically all snow. Thereafter the winter was not over, but a new snowfall introduced snow again (“turning the environment into a white winter wonderland”) and that new snow (melting during the time of this visit) we were able to sample. And new snow is expected soon again, at the very end of March.


Two additional challenges

In addition to finding snow, there were some other challenges, too. The first one was definately the left handed traffic. You have to keep really focused all the time in the traffic whether walking, driving or cycling. Secondly, the original BREXIT day was during my UK visit. Nobody knew how it would affect. Luckily the schedule was changed!

Biggest surprises?

What was most surprising? Perhaps to see an eagle in the sky (a Golden Eagle*, according to Chris), and to learn that the big mammal predators of wolf and bear are totally missing here in Cairngorms!

*Golden eagle

Length: 76-90cm Wingspan: 2.1m Weight: 3.7-5.3kg Average Lifespan: 23 years

Status: Protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, and classified in the UK as an Amber List species under the Birds of Conservation Concern review.

Distribution: A rare bird of the mountains and moorlands of Scotland

How to reach Cairngorms?

To reach Cairngorms, I took the train from Edinburgh Waverley to Aviemore. The journey took less than three hours and was quite easy and confortable. On the way I saw a big change in the environment, as the green sunny fields turned into more winterly and cloudy hills with snow on the top of them. What a difference in less than 3 hours!


As a summary, the samples gained at the ECN Cairngorm site, and elsewhere around the Cairngorms National Park, represented snow, spring water, stream water, water of the River Spey and lake water. Meaning a really good variability of different types of samples.

Photos: Outi Meinander, Finnish Meteorological Institute, Finland.

The BLACK team will be conducting fieldwork on and around the EU H2020 INTERACT stations of Faroe Islands Nature Investigation FINI, Iceland’s Sudurnes Science and Learning Center, and UK Environmental Change Network’s ECN Cairngorms, Scotland, in season 2018-2019. The filter samples of snow, ice and water will be chemically analyzed for their Black Carbon, organic carbon and dust contents at the laboratory of the Finnish Meteorological Institute. The BLACK blog url is



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