Sierra Nevada comes with an uneasy dual identity like a unique biodiversity hotspot and Europe´s most southerly ski resort, but climate change is threatening both.
Every year, many thousands of holidaymakers visit one of Granada´s most well-known viewpoints, the Mirador de San Nicolas, to snap that classic photograph from the Alhambra palaces with the snow capped mountains from the Sierra Nevada in the distance.
This timeless view, using the distinctive 3,392 metre summit of the Pico de Veleta rising over the fabulous stronghold of Granada´s Nazrid monarchs, seems unalterable by time and humanity. However, time is definitely drained for this unique and precious mountain wilderness.
Sierra Nevada – A global Apart
Straddling the Andalucian provinces of Granada and Almeria, the Sierra Nevada may be the highest mountain range in Western Europe following the Alps, reaching its highest reason for the 3,478.6 metre peak of Mulhacen.
These mountains began to form some 20 million years back due to the convergence from the African and European tectonic plates. Throughout the ensuing climatic fluctuations, plants and animals gradually colonized the region from western Asia, northern Europe and Africa.
Approximately 5.33 million years back, a cataclysmic event referred to as Zanclean Flood separated Europe from Africa, dividing populations of animals and plants into distinct communities. In southern Spain, those species with North African connections include the endangered Sierra Nevada daffodil, (Narcissus nevadensis), the Sierra Nevada crocus (Crocus nevadensis) and also the Spanish rusty foxglove (Digitalis obscura). Elsewhere in Andalucia, another internationally famous survivor out of this continental separation may be the Spanish fir or Pinsapo (Abies pinsapo).
Other thin air plants from the Alps and northern Europe expanded south during cold periods, and have become isolated in their southern Spanish refuge as relict species after the end of the last Ice Age. These arctic-alpine species include the gentian, Gentiana alpina, usually related to Swiss meadows, and also the glacier buttercup, Ranunculus glacialis, a plant more characteristic of Scandinavian mountains.
Endemic Plants And Animals
Isolated from Europe's other great montane enclaves, the Sierra Nevada also evolved its very own unique biota. There are some 70 endemic plants including a wormwood, Artemisia granatensis, the Sierra Nevada plantain, Plantago nivalis, and also the insectivorous butterwort, Pinguicula nevadensis.
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Many from the Sierra's unique alpine plants are found above the treeline at 2,800 metres, where they survive the tough climate in sheltered corries and crevices. At lower altitudes, pine, juniper and other typical Mediterranean vegetation dominates, and woodlands of holm oak, sweet chestnut and Pyrenean oak grow between 1,300 and 1,700 metres.
Sierra Nevada is also an essential habitat for many animals and birds, including golden and Bonelli's eagles, wild cats and Iberian ibex, but it is particularly renowned for its invertebrates, 78 which are found here and nowhere else, and some which are incredibly scarce.
Sierra Nevada – A Protected Paradise
It is no surprise that the Sierra Nevada continues to be afforded legal protection in the highest national level. In 1999, an area of 86,210 hectares was declared a National Park, while another 86,000 hectares retains the lesser status of Natural Park. Prior to this, in 1986, the region received international recognition if this was designated like a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
This special place attracts researchers in the University of Granada and, indeed, from across the world, who come to study its endemic species and it is ancient but extremely fragile montane ecosystems.
Skiing Within the Sun
The Sierra Nevada´s other claim that they can fame, is it hosts the most southerly ski resort in Europe. Although relatively small by European standards, the resort is very busy between December and April and it has 105 kilometres of pistes, catering for those amounts of skiing competence.
In 1996, the resort hosted the planet Downhill Skiing Championship (postponed from 1995 due to lack of snow) and today, it provides underground parking for 2,800 cars and its lifts can carry as much as 31,965 passengers every hour. It is a short drive from Granada city, and there’s an enormous appeal in skiing underneath the Andalucian sun, so close to Granada´s holiday coast, the Costa Tropical.
Relationships between Cetursa, the organization that manages the ski resort and the Sierra Nevada National Park authorities have, sometimes, been problematical. Among the oldest pistes already encroaches 750 metres into the national park, and initially, Cetursa refused to rectify this problem although they have finally agreed to take remedial action.
Past attempts to extend the ski resort were unsuccessful, however local business owners are worried that the resort is losing ground with other Spanish ski centres and expansion plans are once again afoot. The proposals are backed by Spain´s right-wing Popular Party (PP), and also the PP Mayor of Granada, José Torres Hurtado, that has claimed that the work could be through with "complete respect towards the environment".
How exactly Granada's Mayor proposes to accomplish this, is uncertain, because experts in environmental matters beg to differ. They cite the illustration of among the earliest ski slopes within the locality, cleared for recreational purposes nearly a century ago. Almost a hundred years later, the delicate ecosystem hasn’t recovered and also the land still bears the clear scars of the original work. The plant communities here have evolved to pass through extreme winter conditions and summer drought, but they are extremely vulnerable to human disturbance and also the mechanical disruption of the fragile habitat.
Running From Time
While both sides argue regarding the fate of Granada's high mountains, the ultimate irony may be that both skiing and conservation will probably miss out. Records show that the Sierra Nevada has registered a 12 day decrease in snow cover during the last decade, and predictions are when current trends continue, through the year 2035, this can have declined with a full month.
Such a dramatic alteration within the amount and duration of the Sierra Nevada's annual snow fall and cover, would render any expansion of the ski resort an extremely costly and completely pointless white elephant.
It would also hasten the extinction of many from the Sierra's plants and invertebrates, most of which are barely clinging to survival because it is. The Andalucian Government's environmental representative, José Juan Diaz Trillo, has stated the reality of climate change in the Sierra Nevada is not questionable, nor is the decision of whether or not to combat it. But any talk of attempting to mitigate the results of global climate change on a local scale, are about as useful as talk of holding back a tsunami with one's bare hands.
Even if the skiing industry has to adapt radically plus some resorts have to close, aficionados from the piste will discover recreation wherever there’s sufficient snow. Skiing isn’t an endangered species. Tragically, on the other hand, once the unique living treasures of the Sierra Nevada are lost, they are gone for eternity.
Andalucia.com: Recreation & Sports – Sierra Nevada Ski Station
Junta de Andalucia: Gabriel Blanca: Flora amenazada y endémica de Sierra Nevada Consejeria de Medio Ambiente/Universidad de Granada; 2001: ISBN 84 338 2713 8
Ideal.es: Sierra Nevada ha registrado 12 dias menos de nieve en una década: 23/02/2012