Skating on Thin Ice

The freeze got me on my skates, and brought the loonies out of their holes.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 9th January 2009

I have spent the last two evenings skating. Last night we laid lanterns out across the ice and swooped and swung and fell flat on our faces on this silent lake in mid-Wales, for hours by moonlight. I should have been in bed – I have a chest infection and a cold – but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

For the exhilaration of this primal game was shaded with sadness: all of us knew that this time might be our last. It is many winters since most of the lakes in England and Wales have frozen hard enough to support a skating party; with every year the chances of another one recede. The fuss this country has made about the current cold snap reminds us how rare such events have become.

My friend John Mason, who has been photographing extreme weather events in this valley for three decades, sent me some pictures of the “Great Blizzard” that struck 27 years today – on January 9th 1982, with a note explaining that my home town, Machynlleth, “was inaccessible by anything other than helicopter for over a week”. His photos show cars stuck on the roads, surrounded by snowdrifts.

I remember that winter well. I started work at an intensive pig farm three days before the freeze began. The feeding system set like concrete and for two weeks we had to run two buckets of feed a day to each of the 1400 pigs. I would get home at seven and fall asleep in the shower. By the time the system thawed, we were wading through a sea of pigshit, as there had been no time to muck the units out. Some of the sows in the farrowing sheds had died of cold and blown up like barrage balloons. As the lowest farmhand, I had to climb over them, cut my way into the body cavity and burst them, then dig out the remains with a shovel. I’m sure there are worse jobs, but they don’t immediately come to mind.

On one night during that winter I was tobogganing with a group of friends on a hill outside our village in south Oxfordshire. Dragging my sledge back to the top, I saw someone pointing, open-mouthed, at the horizon. Great pillars of white light were shimmering up to the zenith of the sky, swinging like crazy searchlights then suddenly collapsing. Our theories ranged from military testing to alien invasion. Several years later I read that the northern lights had been recorded that night in southern Oxfordshire for the first time in a century.

The weather of the past few weeks would have been unexceptional in the early 1980s. Today it is being cited as definitive proof that manmade climate change can’t be happening. There’s a splendid example of such blithering idiocy here: Gerald Warner, writing in the Telegraph, contends that the cold snap lends more support to the idea of a new ice age than to global warming theory. Were he to apply this reasoning consistently, he would have to write another blog on Sunday showing that, due to the unseasonably warm temperatures the Met Office forecasts for the UK this weekend, global warming is definitely happening. And the following week, if there’s another cold snap, he should predict a new ice age again.

Faced with a choice between global temperature records covering more than a century, or three weeks of cooling in one small corner of the planet, Mr Warner chooses the second dataset to identify long-running global trends. Though he has evidently never read or never understood a peer-reviewed paper on this subject in his entire crabbed life, he then goes on to dismiss this whole canon of science as nonsense. Is there any other subject on which journalists can make such magnificent idiots of themselves and still keep their jobs?

When heatwaves strike, climate scientists and environmentalists tend towards caution, explaining that though such events may be consistent with predictions they cannot be used as proof that climate change is taking place: only the long-running global trend is a reliable guide. If anyone is foolish enough to present a heatwave as clear evidence of manmade climate change, the deniers jump all over them. The same critics then use every snow flurry or frozen puddle as evidence of the collapse of global warming theory.

The thought that I might never skate outdoors again feels like a bereavement. I pray for another cold snap, even though I know it will bring all the nincompoops in Britain out of their holes, yapping about a new ice age.