Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/35 posted by hidden europe on

The news this week, widely reported in Europe's media, that French glaciers are on the retreat prompts us to reflect on glaciers around mainland Europe. It is of course no surprise that Europe's permanent areas of snow and ice are threatened by our warming climate. These changes are most strikingly evident in the Alps, but perceptive observers of mountain environments notice them more widely.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

The news this week, widely reported in Europe's media, that French glaciers are on the retreat prompts us to reflect on glaciers around mainland Europe. It is of course no surprise that Europe's permanent areas of snow and ice are threatened by our warming climate. These changes are most strikingly evident in the Alps, but perceptive observers of mountain environments notice them more widely.

Early nineteenth-century travellers in the Sierra Nevada (in Andalucía) and in the Picos de Europa (close to the Atlantic coast of northern Spain) recorded significant glaciers in both mountain ranges. All have now disappeared. A dozen small glaciers survive in the Spanish Pyrenees, but the total area under permanent ice cover is now only a tenth of what it was one hundred years ago.

The complete disappearance of the Sierra Nevada glaciers (probably in 1913 when the Corral del Veleta glacier eventually faded to nothing) leaves a number of contenders for the southernmost surviving glacier on the European mainland. We are inclined to give our vote to a little Bulgarian glacier called Snezhnika. It is tucked away in a deep cirque under the north face of Mount Vihren in the Pirin Mountains.

Don't expect great swathes of white ice. Snezhnika is a rather grubby little glacieret (a lovely word that geomorphologists use for baby glaciers) and has a surface area of less than one hectare.

Bulgaria boasts a rather larger glacieret just two kilometres further north, and that icy waste is often cited, incorrectly we think, as Bulgaria's only glacier. Snezhnika's days are surely numbered, as indeed are those of other surviving areas of permanent snow and ice in southern Europe. Elsewhere in the Balkans there are three little glaciers in northern Albania and one in Montenegro.

Across the Adriatic in southern Italy, there's a decent little glacier (or do we mean glacieret?) just below Corno Grande, the highest peak in the southern Apennines. But it is fading fast, and a spokeswoman for a local conservation organisation tells us that glacieret hunters would be well advised to visit soon, for the Calderone glacier is melting away and is unlikely to be around in just ten years time.

Warming to this melting theme, we have checked out the statistics of wee glacierets and mighty glaciers across the continent, skating (metaphotically) across maps from the High Caucasus to the deepest recesses of the Durmitor massif. It is a tough call, but we are still inclined to grant to Snezhnika in Bulgaria the hidden europe prize for the southernmost permanent icefield in mainland Europe.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.