Much has been said about the situation of the glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, but less is known about those in the high mountain areas of the Iberian Peninsula. A Spanish research study states that active glaciers in the Pyrenees, which they say have seen a steady increase in temperature (0.9°C since 1890), will disappear before 2050.

Researchers from the University of Cantabria, the Autonomous University of Madrid and Valladolid have produced a summary on the current situation of the Pyrenees, Sierra Nevada and Picos de Europa. They based their work on how climate change has affected the glaciers since the 'Little Ice Age' (from 1300 to 1860) to conclude that only the Pyrenees has active glaciers left.

This work, recently published in The Holocene, compiled data from current and historic glacier studies, as well as information from Spain’s ERHIN Programme, to present the first global study on three glaciated high mountain areas in the Iberian Peninsula in historic times and the evolution of the deglaciation process to date.

Glacier of Monte Perdido, Pyrenees. Image: SINC / Juan José González Trueba

“High mountains are particularly sensitive areas to climate and environmental changes, and how glaciers evolve there in response to climate change is one of the most effective indicators of current global warming, in this case evidenced in Iberian mountain ranges”, explained the main study researcher and professor from the University of Cantabria, Juan José González Trueba, to SINC.

60% of Pyrenean glaciers have melted

There are currently only 21 glaciers in the Pyrenees (ten on the Spanish side and eleven on the French side) covering an area of 450 hectares. In just 15 years, since 1990, glaciological calculations have shown that rapid melting has caused the total regression of the smallest glaciers and 50%-60% of the surface area of the largest glaciers.

According to this pioneering study, between 1880 and 1980, at least 94 glaciers disappeared in the Iberian Peninsula, and since the 1980s, the remaining 17 glaciers have disappeared. Glaciers are sensitive “geoindicators of climate change, and features of high heritage value, in a clear process of melting, and therefore possible disappearance”, González Trueba pointed out to SINC.

A look at the past

The glaciers in the Iberian Peninsula's mountains were formed in the Little Ice Age. The coldest period in which the greatest spread of glaciers in the Spanish high mountains was recorded occurred between 1645 and 1710. Between 1750 and the beginning of the 19th century small glaciers receded in the Pyrenees but soon recovered thanks to a new period of low temperatures. However, since then, temperatures have risen between 0.7ºC y 0.9ºC in Spain’s northern mountains, showing the effects of global warming.

The first evidence of the existence of glaciers in the Picos de Europa was discovered in the notes of geographers, naturalists and travellers at the end of the 19th century. Recent studies have shown that Cantabrian glaciers existed in historic times, always located on the north faces of the highest peaks, under an oceanic climate at “extremely” low altitudes, from 2190 m to 2600 m.

In Sierra Nevada, scientists have verified the existence of the southernmost glacier in Europe during the Little Ice Age, under Mediterranean climate conditions, and where factors promoting the accumulation of snow were altitude, orientation (north side) and topographic conditions. This glacier, also indicated by the first naturalists, disappeared at the beginning of the 20th century. The rise in temperature caused its melting until it was transformed into a small “ice lens” buried beneath a dense blanket of deposits.

Article: González Trueba, J.J; Martín Moreno, R.; Martínez de Pison, E.; Serrano, E. “’Little Ice Age' glaciation and current glaciers in the Iberian Peninsula”. The Holocene 18(4): 551-568 June 2008.