News and Views January 2011

How do tourism and pastoralism interact with protected national parks and nature reserves in the Pyrenees?  How are the natural and cultural landscapes changing? How can we strike a balance between traditional and modern accommodation standards, infrastructure and tourist expectations? These are some of the questions the Pyrenean Odysseys newsletter will address, on a quarterly basis.

While it may seem somewhat contradictory to be both trying to sell holidays (where somewhat idealised imagery and language is inevitably used) while also giving information and insight into the reality of life on the ground, we are hopeful that by encouraging you to share in more than just the spectacular views the Pyrenees provides we will deepen your enjoyment of the area and set us all on the path of more enriching interaction.

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Climate Change?

Here in the Pyrenees it hasn’t been a warm winter, and it hasn’t been a consistently cold one either. Oscillating between bitingly cold Arctic conditions and lovely, warm sunny days that waft in on the wind from Spain, what began as an excellent snow base melted back to almost nothing with the two very warm episodes sandwiched between the cold periods.  Last weekend we had a good amount of snow over three days so we should be back on track for the weeks to come.

All this variability makes it extremely difficult for people who like to prove or disprove global warming based on the weather of the moment!  It’s not a warm winter, but it’s not consistently cold either.  A recent piece of research may help to explain all this: could it all be linked to melting sea ice in the Arctic.  Ice free Barents and Kara Seas at the start of winter mean hugely increased evaporation over the Arctic (the relatively warm ocean is no longer insulated by sea ice and is directly exposed to the cold polar atmosphere).  This creates a local high pressure system which directs cold Arctic air down into north western Europe (Petoukhov and Semenov, 2010)[1].  If cold air is heading out of the Arctic, warm air is being pulled in, explaining the record high temperatures in Greenland this winter.  So melting sea ice in the Arctic may paradoxically promote cold European winters, and a warm Greenland, for some decades to come.

Could this be good news for ski resorts in the Pyrenees and the Alps?

In the past the best indicator of a good ski season in western Europe was the North Atlantic Oscillation.  If it is near zero, or negative (as it is this year), the pressure difference between the Azores High and Iceland Low is weak, reducing the strength of the Atlantic storm systems and allowing cold Arctic air to descend and the cold Russian high to shift westward.  While there is less precipitation in winters like this, it is colder and the snow base holds up well.  This year the index has largely been negative, but this has not exempted us, in the Pyrenees, or the Alps for that matter, from some very warm conditions (+7°C and raining in Serre Chevalier during the first week of January after temperatures of around -15°C).

Is global warming causing both Arctic sea ice loss (which increases episodes of very cold winter conditions in western Europe) as well as anomalous warm episodes?  Does this explain our yoyo temperatures this winter?  The local result of global warming may be the increasing extremity, in both directions, of western European winter weather.

“Traversing the Pyrenees – along the ridge and across the frontier”

The three French and four Spanish regions with territories backing onto the Pyrenees, plus Andorra, have launched 2011 as the Year of the Pyrenees.  To coincide with this Pyrenean Odysseys is launching “Traversing the Pyrenees – along the ridge and across the frontier“, beginning two big traverses in 2011.

The Pyrenean High Route

The first traverse, from west to east almost along the ridge line, is our version of the Pyrenean High Route.  Why our version and not the standard version?  Simply because we don’t want you to miss out on some of the most spectacular and interesting parts of the Pyrenees (in particular the Ordesa Canyon and the Encantats). This summer Mandy and Sacha are offering the first four weeks, starting at the Atlantic Ocean and finishing at the Port de Bielsa, just east of our base in Luz St Sauveur.  They aim to offer additional sections each year, and finish at the Mediterranean in a couple of years time.  The journey is broken into nine, week long, stages.  The first week is in July 2011, a second week in August, and then two successive weeks in September.  If you’ve ever dreamed of undertaking a big traverse, this is the place to start.

On the return paths from Santiago de Compostella

The second crossing, from south to north will be 2-3 weeks in late Sept/early Oct, beginning at the San Juan de la Peña monastery close to Jaca in the Spanish foothills, and will follow the forgotten paths of pilgrims returning from Santiago de Compostella over the high Pyrenean passes.  Early in the summer these high passes over the Pyrenees are blocked by snow, so were never a feasible passage on the way to Santiago.   But by autumn they are snow free, and allowed the curious and adventurous pilgrim to complete a grand circuit, taking in as many sites and medieval marvels as possible.

What is fascinating about these high paths is that they revive the idea of the return journey, considered so important for the reconstruction of the pilgrim after the destruction and rebirth achieved by the journey towards, and arrival in, Santiago.  Pilgrims who return home directly by plane risk arriving lost and disoriented (something that of course can apply to any journey, and which we find taking the train helps to remediate!).  In medieval times the rebuilding of the individual was achieved on the return journey by visiting the marvels of medieval Europe.  Craftsmen visited and learnt, taking the techniques and ideas home with them, arriving enriched and rejuvenated.  Monks and other scholars searched out sacred texts and knowledge.

Natural wonders, however, were not at all appreciated in medieval times.  The great glacial cirques and canyons were considered frightening and showed the menacing nature of the wilderness.  Medieval people were surrounded by nature, and as Alain de Botton points out in The Art of Travel, throughout history we have sought out travel experiences that take us away from our everyday environment.  Only during the industrial revolution and the counter-current  Romantic movement did it become common to appreciate the beauty of natural landscapes. The modern pilgrim is therefore doubly blessed when undertaking the journey over the high passes of the Pyrenees.  Not only does the path link up some wonders of medieval cathedral building and Romanesque architecture, but it also passes through the Mont Perdu World Heritage Area and the French and Spanish Pyrenean National Parks.

Walking east from San Juan de la Peña towards Torla, we cross over the Col du Bucharo and arrive in Gavarnie.  From there it is down through the valleys of the Lavedan, possibly finishing in Lourdes or continuing east through the French foothills to St Bertrand de Comminges.  Along the way we will be writing detailed walk notes and investigating the best places to stay so Pyrenean Odysseys can offer this as a self-guided walk in 2012.

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[1] Petoukhov, V., and V. A. Semenov (2010), A link between reduced Barents-Kara sea ice and cold winter extremes over northern continents, J. Geophys. Res., 115.  D21111, doi:10.1029/2009JD013568.  See the abstract of the paper here.

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