The Pyrenean glaciers, the last bastion of ice in southern Europe, are dying. In 1850, in the Pyrenees there were more than fifty glaciers and their extension totaled about 2,000 hectares. A century later, back in 1990, there were already a dozen fewer glaciers. Today, the half of these ice formations have already disappeared. And the last great survivors have lost between 50% and 60% of its surface. These huge blocks of ice and snow now occupy only a few 200 hectares.
The latest Bulletin of Climate Change Indicators for the Pyrenees warns that the loss of glaciers has accelerated in last thirty years. All indicators of the health of these ecosystems have worsened. The Anetofor example, has lost more than 50% of its surface. In 1990, the frozen surface of this formation extended over more than 100 hectares. Now, it barely occupies 47. On the other side of the border, the Ossoue glacier has shrunk by almost 60% during this same period. According to the latest estimates, it now even reaches 30 hectares.
“The glaciers of the Pyrenees are in a critical situation”, he argues Eva Garcia Balaguer, coordinator of the Pyrenean Climate Change Observatory (OPCC-CTP). “Global warming has accelerated ice loss in these ecosystems and, due to the dynamics of the climate itself, it will be very difficult to stop this deterioration. The loss of glaciers is not only an environmental problem. If these ecosystems disappear, so will we lose natural heritage. A symbol of our territory”, comments the scientist.
In 2020, for example, the total area covered by glaciers reached the lowest value since records exist. Never, in the last three decades, had such a low extent of ice been observed in the Pyrenees. The Cotiella ice caveanother indicator of the state of health of these iconic mountains, has also marked a record low regarding the extent of the ice. “These data should be read as a warning signal on the impact of climate change on our environment”, comments García Balaguer.
Guilty of the thaw
Glaciers are ice formations that, far from remaining static, vary over time. In Roman times and later in the Middle Ages, the glaciers of the Pyrenees also shrank. But now, unlike what happened in those times, the ice loss proceeds much faster. As explained by the geologist Ana Moreno, normally these changes usually occur over periods of hundreds or thousands of years. Now, on the other hand, the melting is advancing at an accelerated pace and in just three decades it has doubled its expansion.
“In the case of the current loss of glaciers we have unequivocal evidence that it is the fault of human activity, the emission of greenhouse gases and global warming”, explains the scientist from the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology (IPE-CSIC). “Glaciers are sentinels of the climate crisis and warn us of what is happening on the planet. Do not we can prevent or reverse ice lossbut we do prepare ourselves for the changes it could cause to the landscape and ecosystems“says the scientist.
The loss of the glaciers of the Pyrenees is transforming, in turn, the mountain ecosystem. Rising temperatures are pushing many species to move up the mountain in search of climatic refuges. This, explains the ecologist Gérard Largier, “opens an ecological niche for animals and plants” expelled from their habitats by global warming. But on the other hand, “the regression of the glaciers could also cause the disappearance of populations of some species“, comments the director of the National Botanical Conservatory of the Pyrenees and Midi-Pyrénées.
The agony of the glaciers is not the only trace of the climate crisis in these mountains. According to the latest climate bulletin, in the last sixty years the average temperature in the Pyrenees has increased about 1.6 degrees. “It is a slightly higher increase than the global average, of 1.2 degrees, but it coincides with the forecasts that the high mountain ecosystems are among the most affected by global warming”, explains the meteorologist Jordi Cunillera, head of the Climate Change team of the Meteorological Service of Catalonia, one of the authors of the latest x-ray of the Pyrenean climate.
While the thermometers rise in the Pyrenees, the rains also begin to distort. According to the records, rainfall has decreased by 10% in the last sixty years. Observations suggest that rain is increasingly concentrated in torrential and extreme episodes. As happened with the storm Gloria. “We also see a change in seasonality of precipitation. Before, the rainy season was in spring and autumn. Now this pattern is changing“, comments Cunillera. “All these changes in the climate not only have an impact on the ecosystem, they also directly affect human activities. There is a lot people who depend on snow for a living“recalls the meteorologist.