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The Days When The River Tay Used To Freeze Over


I’m only in my early thirties but already within my lifetime I’ve seen marked changes in the climate. I grew up in a little village called Wormit (and then latterly in a slightly bigger village next door called Newport) on the river Tay. At this point the river is just under 2 miles wide. It’s a proper, fast flowing river and many people have been swept to their deaths in it over the years.

And yet, when I was a lad I used to get woken up in the Winter by the noise of huge blocks of ice bashing into each other as they creaked their way down the river. My dad took a photo one Winter morning of the ice flows which you can see below (note the chunks of ice in the middle distance and that Dundee is lost in cloud):

Ice Flows In The River Tay

Today a mere 20 years later people would think me crazy if I suggested the river froze in Winter. You’d be lucky to see a flake of snow anywhere near the place. I remember the local schools having to close as a result of heavy snowfall and we’d sit watching the cars spinning off the road at that corner by our house (see above). Nowadays? The Winters are so mild that neither is an option.

Scotland used to have several thriving ski resorts and yet now the season is shorter, some of the resorts don’t open at all and the amount of snow is a fraction of what it was. The Winters just aren’t cold or sustained any longer and it’s happened in only a few years.

When I visited New Zealand in 2003 it was amazing to see pictures of the Franz Josef glacier as it had been just a century earlier and know that the car park a couple of miles from the glacier was covered by the glacier only a few decades earlier. Glaciers the world over are melting and ski resorts across Europe (for example) are seeing shorter seasons year on year. While periods of warm and cold are cyclical over time the years since the 1980s have seen rapid glacial melt well beyond anything predicted by scientists based on historical records.

Whether you believe that global warming is real and exacerbated by humans or whether it’s a government conspiracy used as a stick to beat tax payers with (or are somewhere in between), the fact remains that we’re coming out of an ice age earlier than expected and it’s looking increasingly likely that within my lifetime the polar ice cap may disappear completely in the summer months – consigning polar bears among other animals to history.

We have short lives and therefore a very short-term view of the world in which we live. But in that short time the world’s climate is changing, extinctions are at a level higher than at any time in the past and in geological timescales these changes are happening in an instant instead of a long time.

I often wonder what archaeologists a million years in the future looking at the fossil records would think. I suspect they’d wonder if some global catastrophe occurred in the same way we’ve wondered why the dinosaurs died out. My concern is that they’d be right. And that the catastrophe was us.

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

13 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. “And that the catastrophe was us” – it is very sad, but true. Im’m share your opinion.
    Here in Russian north was always very very cold in winter. I remember that only 5 years ago it was so deadly cold in here, so we had to wrap in a huge quantity of clothing and because of that all the people on the streets were similar to the thick clumsy bears.
    But today on the streets almost December, on the street +4ะก and Lake Onega not even started to freeze…
    Interesting – how we will live after 10-15 years if this process doesn’t stop?


    • I know what you mean Vinnsent, things are changing so fast that in 10-15 years the world could be a very different place than it is today. It’s not just saving the planet for the next generation, it’s our generation too!


  2. According to BBC’s “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, 500 years ago there was a mini Ice Age when the Thames froze over. But if you go 1000 years ago was a great warm period when it was even warmer than it was now, when there were grapes in the north of England.

    My question is, if a mere 1000 years ago it was much warmer than it is today, presumably the polar ice cap disappeared then as well, and yet the polar pears still survived, so why do we think they’ll die out this time?


    • I certainly don’t claim to be a climatologist by any stretch but the polar ice caps certainly didn’t melt 1000 years ago and indeed the global glacier coverage back then was way, way higher than it is today. But my point wasn’t just about climate change (which I agree is debatable and besides, our world view is way too short by geological measures), it was also that you can’t argue with the greatest recorded extinction rates since us humans started getting clever. And that’s the global catastrophe that bothers me the most.


  3. I cannot speak to 1000 years ago, but recent articles have noted that it appears that 6000 to 7000 years ago, it was even warmer than it is today, and that the Arctic may have been periodically ice free. In fact, as the ice recedes, archaeologists are finding evidence of human settlement on the NORTH end of Greenland.

    Climate change is real. Anthropomorphic Global Warming might not be.

    As for “the greatest recorded extinction rates since us humans started getting clever,” we didn’t start recording them until we got clever, now did we? ๐Ÿ™‚

    The serious point being that the same environmental factors that contributed to the development of technology in Europe and then the Americas (warming climate, better harvests, etc) may be the same factors driving species out of existence.

    But, like John, I also don’t claim to be a climatologist, just an observer of the planet who thinks John makes great software.


    • Heh heh, in terms of extinction rates I meant according to Archaeologists looking at fossil records and whatever else they look at (although who knows how accurate these Archaeologists are!).

      And thanks, you’re too kind! ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. Hi John, enjoyed reading your blog on the ice in the Tay. I was only two the year it froze but my dad has an amazing photo of it. You may be glad to hear that there have been floes in the river this year, not to the same extent (yet!) but we will see what happens.
    Ps I know this an old topic but it has suddenly become relevant again!


    • I must say, it’s heartening to see a proper Winter again and nice that there’s some ice on the Tay! Maybe the climate hasn’t changed that much after all! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Oh, I’d be interested to see a copy of that photo your dad took if you have it electronically – you can get my email address here.


  5. John,
    Was up the other days at the folks house in Wormit and its the first time I have seen the river frozen again since the 80’s. Alot of ice in there just now and the annual boxing day sailing race at Royal Tay was cancelled as we dont sail ice breakers!!!! Amazing stuff but 6 weeks of sub zero makes it happen. God help what the heating bill will be this quarter????
    Merry Christmas anyway and happy new year at the weekend.


    • Hi Keith, a merry Christmas to you guys too!

      Yeah, my father was showing me some pictures of the heavy snow and ice up there – it’s like the clock’s been wound back 25 years!


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