Scotland's skiing industry may soon struggle to cater for novice skiers as increasingly mild winters take their toll on the nursery slopes.
But climate experts have found that, contrary to earlier predictions, snow is likely to continue to fall on the higher Scottish slopes.
John Harrison, of Stirling University's department of environmental science, has analysed the Scottish climate over the past 30 years and found that winters are getting wetter, cloudier and warmer thanks to an Atlantic version of the weather system El Ni$o.
"We are in a latitude where you expect winds to come from the west, and they have been more persistent and stronger over the past ten or 15 years. As long as they persist, we will carry on with relatively snowless, frostless winters," he said.
Dr Harrison has developed a computer model to predict the effect on snow cover if this year's mild winter becomes the norm. This has revealed that there will be no snow in low-lying areas such as Fife. There is a dramatic disappearance of snow from hilly areas that would otherwise be snow-capped. Above 2,500 feet, however, snow continues to fall, with an average loss of only ten days of snow between October and April.
Dr Harrison admits surprise at the findings. Some scientists had predicted in the 1980s that an increase in temperature would lead to the end of the ski industry, and Dr Harrison had expected the snow to vanish across the country. But the combination of increased rain and sub-zero temperatures in the Scottish highlands ensures that it falls as snow.
"But it does not stay. At one time, we often got snow from the north and east, which meant the air stayed very cold, and once the snow fell, it stayed there. But what we get from the west is tons of snow, then a week later the temperature shoots up and it is gone, and then another week later, we get another dollop," Dr Harrison says.
"We are facing a climate that does not look as if it is doing any great favours on the lower slopes. But at 3,000 feet there is still a fair amount of snow, albeit irregular. There will still be a ski industry base, but it may favour the expert more than the novice."
One bonus may be that roads to the ski slopes will be less prone to blockage by snow and ice. Dr Harrison suggests that the ski companies could place more emphasis on non-skiers being able to enjoy scenery from well-serviced vantage points with cafes. The tourist industry is also likely to benefit from summer weather becoming more reliably pleasant, Dr Harrison says, with hotter and drier summers in the highlands and a sunnier east coast.
"The problem is that you cannot sell Scotland as having a Costa Brava-type of guaranteed sunny climate. But you get brilliant visibility and brilliant scenery. You'll be able to sit and listen to the water lapping and see the hills without them being shrouded in cloud."
Dr Harrison is hesitant to ascribe the changes to global warming, saying that the link with the current climate changes is still under investigation.
"At the moment there is a global warming environment, and it might be causing all sorts of things. But you can relate the climate change in Scotland to the westerlies; and how long that is going to last, I don't know. The projection at the moment is that we are in a rising curve that will plateau out into a new climate at the beginning of the 21st century."