Spain. Climate Change, Drought, Heatwaves and Solutions.
Climate of Spain.
As a country whose peninsula land mass stretches from the Pyrenees mountains in the north to within 15 kilometres (9 miles) of the coast of Morocco in the south, Spain enjoys a climate that is both European and Mediterranean.
Along the north coast from Galicia to the Basque Lands, the topography/terrain is characterised by wooded mountains and hills, and luxuriant green –frequently steep– valleys. Often called Green Spain, this northern strip receives cool winds off the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay which ensure warm –not generally hot– summers and mild winters. Clouds and rainfall form a regular pattern, with snow on the upper heights of the Picos de Europa mountains in the winter.
Below the Pyrenees, the weather tends to be drier and the landscape less verdant/ lush, but melting snow from the mountains allow for green stretches as the terrain approaches the wide valley of the River Ebro. Away from the Atlantic breezes and influenced more by Mediterranean winds, the summers can be hot, and the winters fairly cold with winds blowing down from the Pyrenees.
Inland Spain is made up of the Meseta, a high central plateau ranging from 400 to 1000 metres (approx. 1312 feet to approx. 3300 ft.) in height and making up about 40% of the country’s land mass. Largely treeless and windblown, the Meseta is blistering hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. The little rain it receives falls mainly in the winter, which explains the large spring cereal crops in Castile-Leon –the northern half of the plateau– and the extensive vineyards in Castile-La Mancha– the southern half.
Southern Spain is largely Andalucía, the most populous autonomous region of Spain and second only to Castilla-León in area/size. Separated from Castilla-La Mancha by the Sierra Morena mountain range, Andalucía boasts the warmest average temperature in the country. Still, there can be wide differences ranging from the cooler mountainous terrain of the Sierra Nevada to the hot Guadalquivir River valley and the desert-like stretches in the province of Almería to the east. Temperatures regularly reach 40+C (104F) at the height of summer along the Guadalquivir while the Tabernas desert in Almería –famous as the location for several movies, including spaghetti westerns as well as Lawrence of Arabia— can reach similar temperatures.
Heatwaves. However, like many other European countries, Spain has experienced extreme heatwaves in the last few years, reflecting the climate change afflicting much of the globe. What is now happening is that the high summer temperatures (40+C) normally associated with Andalucía, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura and parts of Castilla-León in late July and into August now start in June. May of this year (2022), for example, was the hottest on record for Spain (and France).
Not only are the heatwaves beginning earlier but they are also more frequent and also more widespread. This, together with reduced rainfall, has led to drought conditions which virtually all climatologists and environmentalists attribute to global warming. In Spain, the latest warning touches on the Tagus –not only Spain’s longest river but also the major source of water for much of the centre of the country— which is in danger of drying up (Guardian July 4/22).
And with drought comes a marked increase in the number of outbreaks of fires. A recent outbreak in the Zamora province of Castilla-León –where the temperature reached an unprecedented 40C (104F)– destroyed approximately 30,000 hectares (74,000 thousand acres) of woodland seriously threatening a wide array of wildlife, including the endangered wolf population of the area.
Two further serious possible consequences of the heatwaves are the effects they may have on agriculture and tourism, both major sources of revenue for the country.
Agriculture: Spain ranks as the world’s biggest producer of olives, and is a major exporter of fruit, vegetables, wines and cheese especially for the northern European market. As demands for these products increase so too does the need of water for irrigation. In the past, Spain invested heavily in dam construction but with the lack of rain many dams are now well below the levels necessary to sustain its water distribution infrastructure and current long-range predictions for rainfall are not encouraging. As a result, desertification, once a relatively minor concern, is growing steadily having increased from roughly 6% of the land between 1960-1990 to 12% between 2000-2020 (Euronews).
August 29, 2022. An article on the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) web site gives a very graphic description of the devastating impact of prolonged drought on olive production in the Province of Jaen (Andalusia), Spain’s most prolific olive-producing region. See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-62707435
Tourism: Spain has long been a hugely popular destination for tourists, registering a record-breaking 84 million international visitors in 2019. However, the impact of the Covid pandemic was disastrous with numbers collapsing dramatically in 2020 to about 19 million. The coastal areas, where the sea and sea breezes offer some relief from the relentless sunshine, remain popular but –given water shortage and wild fires— inland tourism has been much affected.
The growing frequency of fires and increasing droughts makes it difficult to predict the direction Spain (and other European countries and indeed worldwide) will take in the coming years. Much depends on the political will of politicians and –assuming that they are willing to undertake the challenge– the choices they make.
Solutions? Simply put, there are no easy solutions, but there is one common-sense step that residents in hot summer areas such as Andalucía, Castilla-La Mancha and Extremadura have long adopted: the famous siesta. Often misinterpreted as a sign of laziness by northern Europeans in the past, the siesta is now recognized as an efficient adaptation to the climate conditions. Spaniards from these regions get up at the crack of dawn then take a prolonged lunch followed by rest, or perhaps a nap or a game of cards or dominos, during the mid-afternoon heat, before returning to work in the evening. This is especially the case in rural Spain, in villages or small towns where the rhythms of the past are still followed.
Common sense work practices are complemented by buildings adapted to the conditions in these heat-affected areas. Houses have traditionally been constructed with thick walls and small windows to keep the indoors cool.
Whitewash on the walls –to reflect the heat away from the house– and adjustable wooden shutters or slats over the windows further help to maintain a steady, comfortable temperature indoors. In many houses, in Andalucía especially, there is a small patio the walls of which are commonly festooned with flowers or support climbing plants. In the middle, there may be a fountain the tinkling sound of which complements the fragrance of the flowers.
The advent of air conditioning has altered the pattern of life to some degree, albeit mainly in larger urban centres –e. g. Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Córdoba, Granada. Here, the demands of tourism have helped to persuade many large stores and/or shopping centres (malls) to remain open during the afternoon hours, but even so there is still a marked reduction in tourist activities and general movement. This is a good time to step into a restaurant or bar, or relax in a shady patio.
Air conditioning is still largely limited to commercial and public buildings or to the homes of the wealthy in Spain. It has been suggested by a government official in Spain that commercial centres and air-conditioned urban public spaces –e. g. libraries, transport— become “climate refuges” i. e. cooling shelters for “vulnerable people like the elderly, pregnant women or those with respiratory problems” (Euronews.)
A problem, which the numbers and widespread distribution of wildfires have highlighted, is the lack of early detection and control of such fires. Much of this is attributed to rural depopulation as people, especially the young, flock to the cities leaving rural villages deserted or inhabited only by the elderly.
España vacía (“Emptied out Spain”) has become a major political issue since an estimated 43% of Spain’s municipalities are at risk of dying out leaving the surrounding land abandoned to scrub which, under drought conditions, quickly becomes tinder dry and susceptible to rapidly spreading fires.
However, efforts to tempt the young back require much investment in day-to-day amenities found readily in the cities: e. g. schools, medical facilities, reliable electrical service and fast internet connections, investment/loans to help set up small businesses, rapid transport connections (e. g. good roads, trains) to the towns. Until these are guaranteed, there is little likelihood that movement to the cities will be reversed.
For an excellent and evocative description of some abandoned villages, see https://www.memoirsofspain.com/post/8-amazing-landscapes-i-ve-visited. The text is accompanied by beautiful photos and personal reflections by the author (Kim). The post concludes with observations on the possibility of purchasing an abandoned village and the problems facing potential buyers.
Map of Autonomous Communities and Provinces: https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map/spain-administrative-map.htm
Various articles on weather conditions in Spain from The Guardian Newspaper and other sources:
March 22, 2023: A dramatic headline in AP News confirms the water problems facing Spain, this time Catalonia (Catalyuna): “Drought in Spain’s northeast empties reservoirs.” The author of the text warns that “Drought in Spain’s northeast reached “exceptional” levels last month [February 2023], menacing access to drinking water for 6 million people in the Barcelona metropolitan area.” To read more, go to https://apnews.com/article/spain-drought-barcelona-reservoirs-956fc841cec86c8fca42686c3c513c54
April 4, 2023. For another article, with a couple of dramatic photos, see the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65129735
July 11, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jul/11/everyone-loved-angel-spanish-town-still-grieving-for-hero-who-fought-wildfires. The article begins with a description of the bravery and tragic death of Angel Martín following his attempt to save his village, Tábara (in the autonomous community of Castilla-León), from wildfires raging nearby. The article then expands to a very well presented description of the general state of the country faced with the prospect of ever increasing wildfires unless it adapts quickly to the changes caused by climate change.