National and regional story (Spain) - SPANISH GLACIERS: THE SOUTHERNMOST SERIES OF GLACIOLOGICAL SPECIMENS IN EUROPE

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SOER National and regional story from Spain
Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 21 Mar 2015

Introduction

Since the late Eighteenth Century, the Pyrenees, both in the French and in the Spanish slopes, have become a centre of interest to Natural History scholars and, at a later date, Romanticism brought them into fashion among travellers willing to get in touch with Nature at its most rugged. Scientists gradually dealt with their description, the measuring of their peaks’ height and the study of the glaciers which, in spite of their southern location, remained -and are still extant- in some Central Pyrenean areas.  

In 1874, the Bordeaux Physics and Natural Sciences Society did publish in its Annual Report a map of an astonishing accuracy and with a graphic design of amazing quality; an innovative work as regards the natural effect of the orographical configuration. It had been prepared, drawn and, later on, engraved by just one person: a young man, born in Bordeaux; an autodidact hardly known, or even unknown, in scientific circles: Jean Daniel François Schrader (1844-1924), better known as Franz Schrader. This geographer, cartographer and landscape painter was also the first scholar who undertook the study of Spanish glaciers, and we are indebted to him for the first description thereof and the first measuring of their dimensions.

In Spanish scientific literature, the first morphological analyses of the Spanish Pyrenees glaciers did appear in the early nineteen-seventies, but the first overall study took place between 1978 and 1982, and was carried out by the Spanish Glaciological Institute (INEGLA), its main findings being published in 1988. For the aforesaid study, the best data then available were used, including the 1956-57 flight and a specific photogrammetric flight made in 1982. In the said survey, the inventory of glacier formations and a complete set of maps on a 1;5,000 scale, the most detailed and accurate carried out so far, were included.

  Madaleta

“The Maladeta Massif as seen from the Benasque, Huesca, Mountain Pass”. Painting by Franz Schrader, 

author of the first estimate of the area covered by Spanish glaciers (1871)

These first works were the starting point for the establishment of systematic controls within the framework of the ERHIN programme. In this stage -which has been continuously going on up to and including the present time- the gathering has been achieved of direct information on the evolution of Spanish glaciers by means of the carrying out of fieldwork, aerial photography, new photogrammetric flights (1988) and satellite images. Besides, research has been conducted on other French and American documentary sources, all of which has made it possible to plot the evolution of Spanish glaciers over the last 150 years.

Current glaciers 

Glaciers location

 Location of Pyrenean glaciers

The only active glaciers currently remaining in the Iberian Peninsula are located in the Pyrenean mountain range. In the early Twentieth Century, they took up an area of approximately 3,300 hectares, a figure which nowadays has been reduced to barely 400 hectares (390 hectares). Out of this area, slightly more than half (58%) belong to the Spanish slope (206 hectares). These glacier formations are Europe’s southernmost reserve, being located at, approximately, the Forty-second parallel, with the exception of the Llardana glacier, the southernmost of them all, whose position has been ascertained at a latitude of 43º 39’ 20”N.

The top altitude of all six mountain massifs where the glaciers are located exceeds 3,000 metres, but their different shapes, locations and orientations give rise to an irregular distribution of the glaciated area. Thus, the Aneto-Maladeta Massif -the largest one- has a 116-hectare area, amounting to more than half the total of Spain’s glacier area, whereas the rest is located, almost in its entirety, in Monte Perdido, Picos del Infierno and Posets. The massifs taking in the glaciers belong to the catchment basins of branches of the river Ebro, the biggest in the Peninsula (Gállego, Cinca, Ésera-Garona and Noguera Ribargozana rivers).

In this mountain area a total of 18 glacier formations can be found, only 9 of which can still be deemed to be proper glaciers; the remaining nine being clearly regressive or residual variations which can be called rocky glaciers or ice masses.

 THE ERHIN PROGRAMME

“Assessment of water resources deriving from snowfall”

In 1981, the Directorate General of Hydraulic Works (nowadays known as Directorate General of Water, dependent on the Ministry of the Environment) set the ERHIN (Assessment of Water Resources deriving from snowfall) programme in motion, whose main purpose is the systematic control of snow reserves available at each moment in time in the different Spanish mountain environments, so that the water contributions resulting from the thaw of such reserves, be integrated into the general management of water resources in the Spanish territory. This programme included a survey of active glaciers in the Spanish Pyrenees with a view to knowing their condition and importance.

The survey, carried out between 1981 and 1983, made it possible to accurately set the location and dimensions of the different glaciers, which were characterized and mapped in a sufficiently precise detail for the time. A series of measurements were concurrently taken in the largest glaciers (Aneto, Maladeta and Monte Perdido) and the volume was measured of the liquid flow coming from them during the low water-level period.

All these works did create a solid knowledge base which has been of use at developing the current glaciological studies of the Spanish Pyrenees, that have eventually led to the geomorphological and glaciological interpretation of the different glaciers. These first studies, besides, made it possible to verify the limited impact of waters deriving from the melting of glacier ice on the hydrological system of the Ebro basin as a whole.

In its latest stage, in addition to providing previously carried out surveys with continuity, ERHIN  has been directed at reflecting possible changes that may come about in our country, at preparing an annual record on the state of the snow in the Spanish mountain ranges and at generating information almost in real time on the evolution of the snow cover and the volumes of flow coming from its thaw, with a view to achieving optimal management of available resources.


Formation and evolution of Pyrenean glaciers

The remotest precedents of these current glaciers are to be found in the great quaternarian glaciations which, throughout the Pleistocene, did affect large areas of the planet, including diverse mountain areas in the Iberian Peninsula. The last of such periods (Würm), did create in the Spanish slope of the Pyrenees thick layers of ice which covered the highest areas in the mountain range and from which large glacier tongues did issue -in some cases, up to 40-kilometre long, 3-kilometre wide and more than 600-metre thick- which converged to the main valleys and went down to a height of 900 metres, creating true valley glaciers, similar to the ones that nowadays can be found in the Himalayas or in Alaska. From the last glacier maximum on -about 20,000 years ago-, the climate became hotter and the Pyrenean ice tongues began a slow but inexorable retreat which was only interrupted by small advances.

Already in historical times, a climatic worsening came about known as the Small Ice Age (SIA), a period lasting from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. During that time many Pyrenean glaciers underwent reconstruction, indeed advancement, the ones still existing today being the result of the said, fully historic process. As confirmed by many of the remains, the cirques were, once again, filled with ice and incipient tongues were formed which, in the cases of La Maladeta or Aneto, reached a length of about 2 kilometres, 300 metres below their current spot height. This last glacier drive came to an end in 1860, a regression starting then which goes on into the present day.

By the end of the Eighteenth Century, the first descriptions by travellers, scholars and Pyrenees enthusiasts (the so called “Pyreneeists”), depicted the glaciers in a condition that must be that of their maximal development in historical times, something that can be nowadays be verified by the well-defined morainal structures and other clear geomorphological traces left on the ground.

As already stated above, the first measuring of the glaciers in the Spanish slope of the Pyrenees was carried out by the French geographer F. Schrader between 1880 and 1894. His studies gave the overall area covered by glaciers in the Spanish slopes an extension of 1,179 hectares. Later on -between 1900 and 1909- Ludovic Gaurier did conduct new measurements coming to the conclusion that the figures given by Schrader could be excessive.

 

GLACIER EVOLUTION IN THE SPANISH PYRENEES 1894-2007

 

 

 

1894

 

 

1982

 

 

1993

 

 

2002

 

 

2007

 

Number of glaciers

27

25

14

9

9

Number of rocky glaciers

 

2

3

3

3

Number of ice masses

 

4

14

6

6

Number of extinct glaciers

 

0

3

16

16

Total number of  glacier formations

27

34

34

34

34

Total number of massifs

 

10

10

6

6

Undefined (1982)

 

3

0

0

0

Total area (in hectares)

1.779

595

468

277

206

Total Volume (hm3)

886

107

75

45

30

Note. 1894 Data: Franz Schrader. 1982 Data: INEGLA. 1993-2002-2007 Data: ERHIN 

 

One century after the taking of the first measurements, the Spanish Pyrenean glaciers and ice masses only covered an extension of about 600 hectares, which in 1993 had been further reduced to approximately 470 and in 2002, did not exceed 280 hectares. Finally, according to the latest data, the area has gone on diminishing until reaching roughly 206 hectares (2007). So accelerated a degradation process has specially affected the smaller glaciers, leaving them in a critical condition or bringing their extinction about. As a result of this conspicuous regression process, some of the glaciers described in the nineteen-eighties have clearly evolved towards a loss of mass, thereby leaving the category of glaciers and becoming ice masses, or even extinct. 

 

EVOLUTION OF GLACIER AREAS IN THE SPANISH PYRENEES. 1894-2007

(Evolution by the massif in terms of hectares)

 

MASSIF

 

1894

 

 

1982

 

 

1993

 

 

2002

 

 

2007

 

Balaitus

55

18

13

0

0

Picos  del Infierno

88

45

38

24

20

Viñemal

40

20

17

2

1

Taillón

 

10

2

0

0

Monte Perdido

556

107

74

44

38

La Munia

40

12

8

0

0

Posets

216

59

52

39

25

Perdiguero

92

10

9

0

0

Aneto-Maladeta

692

314

249

162

116

Besiberri

-

-

6

6

6

TOTAL FOR THE PYRENEES (hectares)

1.779

595

468

277

206

 Nota. 1894 Data: F. Schrader’s estimate; 1982: INEGLA; 1993-2002-2007: ERHIN

 

In this process, reductions as well as increases can, accordingly, be observed, which were caused by the disintegration of a large glacier into one or two formations. Nowadays, there only remain 18 out of the 34 described in 1982, as can be seen in the table below. Out of the surviving number, nine are proper glaciers, three are rocky glaciers and six are ice masses.

South-facing slopes, whose glaciers were initially less developed and in fragile morpho-climatic conditions, have undergone the total loss of ice, with the exception of the Aneto’s southern slope where the small “Corona” ice mass still exists. This has resulted in the border massifs of Balaitus, Taillón, La Munia and Perdiguero, whose north-facing slopes are entirely in French territory, ceasing to count as Spanish glaciated areas. In all remaining cases, a significant backward movement has been detected which, in general, can be deemed to be serious with marked losses of volume, area and length, along with a shortening of the altitudinal ranges of occupancy by the ice.

 

Lenght Variation

 Variation in length of glaciers in the Spanish Pirineo


Climatic change and glaciarism

The glacier regression stage which can currently be noticed in the Pyrenees is in keeping with what, generally speaking, is being pointed out throughout the world, and which seems to have a connection with the establishment of a warm climatic trend and with a certain change in the precipitations regime. Regardless of the knowledge or otherwise of the ultimate causes being responsible for the degradation process, it seems obvious that, unless the current regressive trend affecting all our glaciers be changed, the Twenty-first century can witness -perhaps within a few decades-, the complete or nearly complete extinction of the last ice reserves in the Spanish Pyrenees and, therefore, an important change in the current mountain landscape.

Monte perdido

Map of Monte Perdido, in the Central Pyrenees. Bourdeux, 1874


1. Balaitús

The Balaitús is a granitic massif located at the Spanish-French border, whose height reaches 3,144 metres. In this massif, studies have been carried out of the Small Ice Age (SAI) glacier marks. A glacier and two ice masses can currently be seen in the massif: the former is called Las Néous (subdivided into two masses) and the first ice mass is known as Pabat (both being located in France); the Frondillas Norte ice mass is located in Spain. It can be asserted that they are residual formations in a highly advanced extinction process, save for the Las Néous glacier, thanks to its being located in the shady mountainside and to the snow contributions coming from the Northern-Pyrenean slope.

 

2. Picos del Infierno

This massif is named after the highest peaks of the range as a whole, but its naming is extended to include an area encompassing different peaks and glaciers. The waters of this massif finally drain into the river Gállego through several sub-tributaries. Glacier formations include the rocky glacier of Las Argualas, which is the largest in the group. Schrader, in his 1894 observations, located one single glacier in the western Pico del Infierno and did not count the Punta Zarra ice mass, estimating the total area at 88 hectares. In 2007, in the massif as a whole there remained only the Picos del Infierno glaciers (western and eastern, although the latter is reduced to an ice mass), the Las Argualas rocky glacier and the Punta Zarra ice mass, jointly covering an area of 20 hectares.

 

3. Viñemal

Standing 3,299 meters high, the Viñemal peak is the loftiest in the French Pyrenees. It is located between France and Spain, specifically, in the province of Huesca, within the boundaries of the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, at the upper end of the Ara river valley. This massif consists of ten mountains arranged in the shape of a crown, all of which exceed 3,000 metres. In it, several glacier formations are located: Ossue, Gaube, Montserrat and Clot de la Hount, among others. There is abundant information about the retreat undergone by the first two: at the end of the Eighteenth Century, the Ossue glacier was 3-kilometer long. Nowadays there remain three glacier formations two of which are of a very small size (Petit Vignemale and Oulettes) plus a third (Ossue) which covers an area of 59 hectares, in addition to three ice masses. 

 

4. Taillón

Taillón is a peak of an altitude of 3,144 metres located at the Spanish-French border. It is a part of the northern end of the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park. The evolution undergone by this glacier is as follows: in 1982 it was classified as a glacier, covering a 10-hectare area and being 415-metre long. In 1993 joined the ranks of the ice masses, upon experiencing a 80% reduction in area, and a 40% one in length. In 2002 has been classified as “extinct”.

 

5. Monte Perdido

Ordesa NP

 Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park. Source: MARM, National Parks Autonomous Authority

The Monte Perdido massif is one of the most spectacular and best known in the Pyrenees, due to the stunning beauty of its morphology, and is located at the upper end of two highly representative valleys of the mountain range: Ordesa and Pineda. The summit after which it is named reaches 3,355 metres. The glaciated area is the second largest in the Pyrenees, after the Aneto-Maladeta massif, even though it is currently much diminished. In 1894 the Pyreneeists Schrader counted five glaciers and estimated its area at 556 hectares. In the 1980 observations, the extinction was already verified of three of them, as well as the division of the main glacier into four. The area estimated at that particular date amounted to just 107 hectares. According to the 2007 observations, this massif is in a critical condition, for there remain just two real glaciers: Upper and Lower Monte Perdido plus a residual ice mass. The total glaciated area covers 38 hectares.

 

6. La Munia

This massif reaches a height of 3,134 metres. Almost seven cirques are located in it, whose shapes are attributable to the Small Ice Age and which have undergone a degradation process since the Nineteenth Century. The most important remains are to be found in the cirques located in the shady slope and facing north, with glaciers, which at certain moment in time reached low spot heights (2,370 metres in Barroude), being abundantly overfed by avalanches. The Robiñera ice mass did evolve until it became extinct (1982-1993), going, in little more than ten years, from an extension of 12 hectares to just 8; and from 525 to 300 metres in length. From 1993 onwards the regression started until total extinction was achieved in 2002, a situation that remains in 2007.

 

7. Posets

The Posets massif belongs with its namesake peak (3,375 metres), the second highest in the Pyrenees. It is made up of different glacier formations whose extension and nature have gradually changed as time went by, and in a far more pronounced way over the last few decades. In 1894 Schrader described four formations in this massif, all of which were classified as glaciers: Llardana, Posets, Los Gemelos and Espadas, which, as a whole, did cover a glaciated area with an extension of 216 hectares. In the 1980 observations, the extinction was verified of the Espadas glacier, as was the division of that of Posets into two formations, there remaining an ice area of just 59 hectares. The Los Gemelos glacier was then classified as a rocky glacier. After the aforementioned date, the Posets glacier has joined the “ice mass” category, its extension having been reduced to 25 hectares (2007).

 

8. Perdiguero

It is a granitic massif located between the Aragón and the Upper Garonne river basins, comprising numerous peaks whose altitude exceeds 3,000 metres, the highest mountain reaching 3,221 metres. It includes 16 cirques. The preservation of abundant remains dating back to the Small Ice Age is due to the northerly orientation, the high altitude and the uninterrupted walls of the cirques. The glacier known as Literota had in 1982 an extension of 10 hectares and was 450-metre long; in 1993, following a 60% reduction in extension and length, which happened just over an 11-year period, it became an ice mass, being declared extinct in 2002. As regards the Remuñe glacier, no data were available in 2002, but those for 1993 made it possible to classify it as an ice mass, with a 5-hectare extension and being 120-metre long. In 2002 it was already declared extinct.

 

9. Aneto-Maladeta

Rolando Breach 

Rolando's Breach. Source: MARM, National Parks Autonomous Authority

 

The Aneto-Maladeta massif is undoubtedly the best known and the most representative in the whole of the Pyrenees, as a result of both including the highest peak in the mountain range (Aneto, 3,404 metres), and the extension and the -relatively- good state of preservation of its glaciers, due not only to its altitude, but also to its massiveness and northerly orientation. The massif is located at the upper end of the Benasque valley, a typical example of sink-shaped glacier valley, through which the Esera river waters run. In spite of being the most important massif, the effect of regression is also remarkable here, as shown by the figures accounting for the loss of glaciated area 


 Evolution of glaciers

Evolution of Glacier Aneto between the Little Ice Age (PEH) and the present

In 1894 Schrader counted a total of 10 glaciers covering a 692-hectare area. The 1980 observations verified that the number of formations remained unchanged, but the glacier area was estimated at 314 hectares. Between 1990 and 2007 the situation dramatically changed: the La Maladeta glacier was divided into two (1992); the Coronas glacier has been turned into an ice mass, while the old glaciers of Cregüeña (1998) and Llosás (1994), Salencas and Alba have disappeared. The glacier extension estimated in 2007 amounts to just 116 hectares.

 

10. Besiberri

It has four peaks more than 3,000-metre high, the highest one reaching 3,024 metres. It is located in the Upper Ribagorza district, at the boundary of the Aigües Tortes y Estany de Sant Maurici National Park. From a geomorphological standpoint, it is characterized by the presence of moraines and a rocky glacier belonging to the cirques made up of the main summit line and the adjacent crests. In 1982 it did not have any specific category and in 1993 it was classified as a rocky glacier, covering a 6-hectare area and being 735-metre long, a situation which remained until 2007.


LEGAL PROTECTION OF SPANISH GLACIERS 

The Spanish Pyrenean glaciers are protected, either directly or indirectly, by legislation both national and regional in scope. Conservation policy in Spain is currently governed by Act 42/2007, promulgated on December 13, on Natural Heritage and Biodiversity, article 33 of which mentions “natural monuments”, a category which includes glaciers. Some of the most important are located within the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park.

It is worth remembering that Spain was one of the countries that pioneered the protection of natural areas, backing the late Nineteenth-century conservationist school thanks to the initiative of Pedro Pidal Bernardo de Quirós, who succeeded in having the December 7, 1916, National Park Act promulgated, for the purpose of “respecting the natural beauty of their landscapes, the richness of their fauna and flora, as well as the special hydrological and geological features they may contain, and causing them to be respected, preventing in this manner and with the highest efficiency, every act of destruction, defilement or disfiguration by man”.

As we have briefly stated, the Spanish Pyrenean glaciers are undergoing a marked retreat in terms of area covered and volume, due to the conjunction of climatological changes -such as the increase in temperature and the decrease in winter precipitations- which have led the different glacier formations to the condition they are in today. Only a universal fight against climate change could alleviate this situation.

A) Pyrenean glaciers’ Natural Monuments. The glaciers of Balaitús, Picos del Infierno, Vignemale, La Munia, Posets, Perdiguero and Aneto-Maladeta are protected by Act 2/1990, promulgated on March, 21 by the Aragon Regional Parliament. The said protection includes the glaciers proper and their morphological environment, encompassing the geology, the fauna, the vegetation, the water and the atmosphere.  Act 2/1990 gives emphasis to their high scientific, cultural and landscape-related interest, whereby, in accordance with the regulations, outlying protection areas will be established aimed at preventing landscape-related or ecological impacts, thus averting any action entailing the destruction, the defilement, the transformation or the disfiguration of the glaciers’ features and their natural evolution processes.

B) Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park. All the described glaciers are located in the province of Huesca, and the most important glacier formation is to be found in this National Park which, nowadays, has an extension of 15,608 hectares, as a result of successive enlargements. It was declared a National Park (under the name of Valle de Ordesa National Park) at a very early date, thus becoming one of the world’s first protected areas (Royal Decree passed on August, 16, 1918). It was reclassified, under its current name, by Act 52/1982 promulgated on July 13.

Royal Decree 409/95 approved its Use and Management Ruling Plan (PRUG). It is also affected by Act 8/2004, promulgated on December 20, on Urgent Measures in matters pertaining to the Environment, and by Decree 117/2005, promulgated on May 24 by the Aragon Regional Government, whereby the organization and operation is regulated of the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park. Since July 1, 2006, the National Park’s management is the Self-governing Aragonese Region’s exclusive responsibility. The transfer of functions and services to this Self-governing Region by the Central Government was made under Royal Decree 778/2006, passed on June, 23, and the broadening of human and financial resources took place under Royal Decree 446/2007, passed on April 3.

The Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park is included in the Ordesa-Viñamala Reserve of the Biosphere, it being the first (1977) of the Reserve proposals submitted in Spain. The Reserve covers an area almost three times larger than the Park (51,396 hectares), including nine municipalities and about 6,000 inhabitants. The Reserve is an exceptional sample of the phenomenon of glaciarism which has sculpted the orography, creating deep U-shaped valleys, cirques and lakes excavated by ice (locally know as “ibones”). The flora diversity includes more than 2,000 inventoried species. It must also be pointed out that in 1977 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since 1988 a Special Zone for the Protection of Birds (ZEPA) is located within its confines, and it is a member of the Natura 2000 Network.

C) Posets-Maladeta Natural Park. It has an extension of 33,267 hectares. It was declared a Natural Park under Act 3/1994, promulgated on June 23, by the Aragon Regional Parliament. In the preamble of the said Act, it is remembered that “The Posets and Maladeta massifs, in the Aragonese Pyrenees, are two of the largest Spanish mountain nuclei. Among its peaks, the two highest in the whole of the Pyrenean mountain range are to be found: Posets, standing 3,375 metres high, and Aneto, in the Maladeta massif, reaching an altitude of 3,404 metres. The whole made up of its large glaciers, crests and peaks (there are more than 30 exceeding 3,000 metres in height), large wooded valleys, the high number of “ibones” and lakes of outstanding beauty, and gorges, constitute an extraordinarily valuable ecosystem”.

 

Main Sources:

  • Arenillas, M.; Cobos, G.; Navarro, J.  [Estrela, T.; Francés, Miguel, coord.] : Datos sobre la nieve y los glaciares en las cordilleras españolas: el programa ERHIN (1984-2008). Madrid: Ministerio de Medio Ambiente, y Medio Rural y Marino, Dirección General del Agua, 2008.
  • Fundación para la Investigación y el Desarrollo Ambiental (FIDA): Las Reservas de la Biosfera en España: el Programa MaB de la UNESCO.[Madrid], 2002
  • Martínez de Pisón, E.; Arenillas, M.: Los glaciares actuales del Pirineo español, in La nieve en el Pirineo español, pág. 29-98. Madrid: Ministerio de Obras Públicas, 1988
  • Ministerio de Medio Ambiente, Centro de Publicaciones: La nieve en las cordilleras españolas [periodical publication] 1 CD-ROM. Contents: Volume I: 1995-1996 to 1997-1998. Volume II: 1998-1999 to 1999-2000. Volume III: 2000-2001 to 2002-2003
  • Ministerio de Medio Ambiente, y Medio Rural y Marino. Organismo Autónomo de Parques Nacionales. Ier  Informe de situación, a 1 de enero de 2007, de la Red de Parques Nacionales, Madrid, abril 2008 [Report submitted to the Senate] http://reddeparquesnacionales.mma.es/parques/org_auto/informacion_general/red_informe.htm
  • Saule-Sorbe, Hélène:  En torno a algunas orografías realizadas por Franz Schrader en los Pirineos españoles , in ERIA, Revista cuatrimestral de Geografía: nº 64-65, 2004, p. 207-220 (Issue devoted to the History of Spanish Cartography)
  • National Parks Website: Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido. http://reddeparquesnacionales.mma.es/parques/ordesa/index.htm

 



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