Covering an area of 506,030 square kilometres, Spain is among the fifty largest countries in the world. The mainland territories cover an area of 493,514 square kilometres; the Balearic Islands cover 4,992 square kilometres; the Canary Islands cover 7,492 square kilometres; and the cities of Ceuta and Melilla cover 32 square kilometres.
The geological history of the Iberian Peninsula has given rise to mountains forming large chains that surround a high inland plateau situated at over 600 metres above average sea level. As a result of this geography, the peninsula is characterised by a rich variety of unique enclaves and natural environments. If there is one characteristic that differentiates the surface of the peninsula from the rest of Europe, it is clearly the diversity.
Stream in Valsaín (Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente)Due to its geographic location, Spain is influenced by two very different bodies of water: the vast and open Atlantic Ocean; and the Mediterranean Sea, whose only physical connection to the former is a narrow channel called the Straits of Gibraltar, which permits the exchange of water between the two masses of very different salinity and temperature. The Spanish coastline is 5,755 kilometres long.
The surface of Spain is extremely varied and characterised by a relatively high average altitude; over 600 metres above sea level. As such, it is the second-highest country in Europe, surpassed only by Switzerland where the average altitude is 1,300 metres. This is due to the presence at the centre of the peninsula of a vast plateau, known as the Meseta, divided into two smaller plateaus by the Sistema Central mountain range. A series of other mountain ranges around the plateau and others located on the edges of the peninsula complete the topographical analysis. There are two depressions (the Ebro and Guadalquivir river valleys) located between the Meseta and the peripheral ranges. The mountain ranges, which except for the Sistema Ibérico [Iberian System] and the Cordilleras Costero-Catalanas [Catalonian- Coastal Ranges] generally run from west to east, exert a tremendous influence on the continental climate by creating natural barriers against banks of moist air from the Atlantic Ocean, which would otherwise temper inland temperatures.
The natural fluvial regime of Spain's rivers mainly depends on the pattern of precipitation, where its waters originate and transform into surface water or groundwater runoff. However, this natural fluvial pattern is affected by human action in the form of infrastructures used to regulate and modify its temporal distribution, as well as other types of actions that remove volumes of water from rivers.
The diversity of climates in Spain, together with other morphological and geological factors, explains the enormous contrasts in its present-day hydrographical composition.
Although the climates in Spain are difficult to classify because of their widely varying nature, it is possible to distinguish the following types:
Climatic zones of Spain (Instituto Geográfico Nacional)There are other smaller but nevertheless significant climate zones, as follows:
- Cold Steppe Climate
- Hot Steppe Climate
- Subtropical Climates
In the former, where temperatures are influenced by the continental factor, the winters are very cold, with average January temperatures ranging between 0 and 3ºC, while the summers are hot, with an average of 24ºC in July and August. Meanwhile, in the peripheral areas the winters are mild, with an average of 10ºC in January, and an average annual temperature, especially on the Mediterranean coast, of between 16 and 18ºC.
Precipitation is also marked by sharp contrasts: the north and northwest, which are directly influenced by the Atlantic, have abundant rainfall and no distinguishable dry season. This area is sometimes known as the España Húmeda, or Wet Spain, with annual precipitation exceeding 600 mm and rising occasionally to 2,000 mm. The remainder of the country is predominantly dry, with an annual precipitation of less than 600 mm. The southeast of Spain is semi-arid, with annual precipitation below 300 mm and a semi-desert landscape that at times is reminiscent of the Sahara.
Spain's rich diversity in terms of climate, petrography and topography has given rise to the formation of several clearly defined ecological regions, which in turn have led to the development of a broad spectrum of vegetation types. Another influential factor is the intensity of human activity, which has gradually transformed our natural surroundings since the Neolithic period, often adding to the already diverse array of habitats.
Under natural conditions, virtually the entire country would be covered by forests; only a few enclaves in the highest mountains and certain extremely dry areas in the southeast and in the Canary Islands do not lend themselves to the natural development of this type of vegetation.
Nowadays, however, the vegetation cover in Spain resembles a type of mosaic in which the natural formations of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants are distributed unevenly throughout the land alongside crop fields and reforested areas. This varied landscape is clearly reflected in the equally varied flora, which comprises approximately eight thousand species and includes plants from the whole of Europe and North Africa. Hence, the European beech co-exists with the Mediterranean holm oak, Aleppo pine, African palm and even the Australian eucalyptus.
The boundary between the wet and dry regions of Spain also separates two types of peninsular landscape: that of Green Spain, with its prevailing leafy evergreens and vastly varying meadowlands, and the landscape of Mediterranean Spain, characterised by expanses of scrubland and xerophilic plant life - plants capable of withstanding the summer droughts - alongside the ever-diminishing woodlands. In more arid areas (La Mancha, Extremadura and, particularly, the Ebro Valley) holm oaks have been replaced by a sparse cover of dry, thorny bushes.
The Mediterranean coastal areas display a more complex variety of vegetation. Here, the holm oaks and cork oaks are joined, even on the coast itself, by a mass of coniferous trees dominated by the Aleppo pine, which on higher ground are replaced by other types of conifers more adapted to mountain conditions. By contrast, a desert-like landscape extends along the Mediterranean shores of south-eastern Murcia and Andalusia. Here, exotic species such as European fan palms, prickly pears and pitas are frequently found, together with more occasional compact or scattered palm groves.
Garajonay National Park (Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente)Forests, natural or otherwise, currently occupy 15 million hectares (approximately 30% of the land), the most characteristic being the Atlantic variety, dominated by oaks and other leafy evergreens; gallery forests, present in 20% of the riverbanks in Spain; Mediterranean forests in their evergreen, sclerophyll and mountain varieties; and sub-alpine coniferous forests, with alternating mountain scrub and wet or semi-wet meadows.
In certain areas with a temperate climate and abundant rainfall, subtropical-lauroid vegetation is still present. So also is the continental steppe vegetation of Eastern Mediterranean and Asian origin, as well as Euro-Siberian vegetation represented by certain evergreen forests, heathlands, hay fields and a few arctic-alpine plants and similar vestiges, which grow in the dampest and highest Mediterranean mountain ranges.
This richly diverse vegetation is matched by a great variety of coastal ecosystems, including intertidal areas, beaches, cliffs, sand dunes, salt marshes, salt steppes, etc. Spain also boasts a similarly rich variety of freshwater habitats, with 75,000 kilometres of rivers and at least 1,500 wetlands, representing 0.22% of the national territory. Although usually fairly small, the wetlands are hugely important as centres of biological diversity.
|Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici
|Archipiélago de Cabrera
||Ciudad Real, Toledo
|Caldera de Taburiente
||Santa Cruz de Tenerife (Isla de La Palma)
||Santa Cruz de Tenerife (Isla de La Gomera)
|Islas Atlánticas de Galicia
||Pontevedra, A Coruña
|Ordesa y Monte Perdido
|Picos de Europa
||Principado de Asturias, Castilla y León, Cantabria
||Asturias, León, Cantabria
|Sierra de Guadarrama
||Castilla y León, Madrid
|Tablas de Daimiel
||Santa Cruz de Tenerife (Isla de Tenerife)
Las Palmas (Isla de Lanzarote)
Source: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment
However, land use in Spain is currently dominated by agriculture, livestock farming and forestry, occupying over 42 million hectares or 80% of the country. Of this area, just over 30% is used for dry-farmed crops, 30% for forestry and 12% for grazing and plant species requiring little water. Irrigated crops occupy 7% of the land. And yet, even in these areas the flora is not without interest: many plants endemic to Spain grow there and a number of animal species are able to live there. In addition to all of this, there is another wholly altered and irretrievable habitat: 8% of the land is covered by urban areas and infrastructures.
There are estimated to be between 50,000 and 60,000 wildlife species in Spain. Of these, 770 are vertebrates (excluding marine fish) and the rest invertebrates. Both types represent over 50% of the total number of species in each group present in the European Union, and, once again, the merits of this biological diversity are multiplied by the endemic factor. This is particularly true of the Canary Islands, where 44% of the wildlife (or 3,066 of the 6,893 animal species present) are endemic.
The Iberian Peninsula, Ceuta and the two archipelagos are also significant in terms of migrations, receiving a vast quantity of animals. Abundant species that cannot strictly be described as Spanish wildlife (mainly birds but also marine fi sh and mammals) use the country as a stopover between their northern breeding grounds and their Mediterranean and Southern Sahara wintering places, or between their reproductive grounds in the Mediterranean and their resting places in the Atlantic.
Brown bears (Instituto Nacional de Tecnologías Educativas)Endangered species are increasingly and more efficiently protected in numerous nature reserves. This is the case, for example, of the brown bear, which lives in evergreen and mixed mountain forests, the Iberian lynx, found in Mediterranean forests and meadowland with thick undergrowth, the European mink, the grouse and the Spanish imperial eagle.
The southern part of the peninsula is home to countless African-type wildlife species, while on the Meseta or central plateau the most predominant species are the partridge, quail, wolf and birds such as the great bustard, sand grouse, imperial sand grouse and various birds of prey. The typically Spanish sub-species include the Spanish deer, the wild cat, the weasel and the Andalusian wild boar. This group also includes the Iberian black pig, although it is not exclusive to Spain, and, through the mutations in its domestication, the fighting bull.
The marine wildlife is rich and varied. The Atlantic offers a greater diversity of fish than the Mediterranean, especially along the coast of Galicia, with large continental platforms, an abundance of plankton and, due to strong tides, the frequent renewal of its waters. In the Bay of Biscay, which is deeper, the fish live further away from the coast. The southern Atlantic coast is characterised by abundant migrant fish, such as the tunas that lay their eggs there en route to the Mediterranean. The endangered Mediterranean monk seal fares well on the rocky coasts least altered by human activity and with abundant islets and caves. However, excessive hunting of large cetaceans has impoverished Spanish wildlife in this respect, and nowadays it is rare to see dolphins, sperm whales and porpoises in the seas that surround the peninsula.
Pyrite (Ashok Beera, Instituto Nacional de Tecnologías Educativas)Iberia, Hesperia or Hispania (the different names by which Spain has been known through history) was famous for its natural wealth, and for the abundance and variety of its mineral resources in particular. In fact, such was this fame that it attracted the attention of conquering peoples and became the battlefield on which Carthage and Rome confronted each other. Even as late as the beginning of the 20th century, Spain still boasted several of the world's most important mineral deposits, and the economic development of certain regions, such as the Basque Country and Asturias, was based on their mineral wealth. Although nowadays the situation has changed, Spain still remains one of the richest countries in Europe in terms of its mineral wealth.
Spanish mineral production (even excluding energy production) is characterised by its diversity. There is practically no mineral absent from Spanish soil, although of the approximately one hundred products exploited, the only signifi cant volumes produced are iron, various pyrites, zinc, copper and lead (among metal minerals) and refractory argil, bentonite, quartz, fl uorite, glauberite, grain magnetite, rock and sea salt, potassium salts and sepiolite (among non-metallic minerals).
Although highly varied, Spain's metal mineral production is insufficient to meet the country's needs. By contrast, non-metal minerals are produced to a surplus, exceeding domestic demand.