Spain's beaches and flora feel the heat

Two studies say global warming is responsible for a shifting coastline and visits from Arctic seals.

By , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor

The jellyfish arrived first, swarming Spain's Mediterranean beaches and stinging tens of thousands of sun-loving vacationers. Confused Arctic seals came next, washing up on Spanish coasts thousands of miles from home.

If any Spaniards still wondered whether they were seeing evidence of climate change, two recent scientific studies confirmed it: Not only has global warming already significantly altered Spain's natural environment, it is likely to continue to do so.

Years of drought here have suggested that something isn't quite right with Iberia's ecology. But this summer's changes have been more dramatic. "We're seeing evidence everywhere on the planet that climate change is a reality," says Arturo Gonzalo Aizpiri, the Environment Ministry's Secretary General for Climate Change, "but in Spain, it is manifesting itself with greater intensity."

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During June and July, white flags with menacing blue blobs flew over many Spanish beaches to warn visitors of the fleets of jellyfish. The jellyfish, most Pelagia noctiluca, stung tens of thousands of bathers nonetheless, according to the Spanish Red Cross, forcing a temporary closure of some beaches.

The phenomenon, says Josep-María Gili, a professor at the Institute of Ocean Science at Spain's Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, had two causes. "The first is overfishing – with fewer sea turtles, tuna, and swordfish, the jellyfish has very few predators."

This allowed the jellyfish population to grow rapidly. The second cause, says Professor Gili, is climate change that has warmed the waters.

Warmer waters may also help explain why the Arctic seals made their way to Spanish coasts. While these seals normally reside in the waters between Canada and Greenland, at least 12 have been spotted this summer in Spain, including four in the northwestern region of Galicia.

The seals' arrival is not unprecedented; in 2001, six reached Spain. But their dispersion so far south is highly unusual, says Alfredo López, president of La Coruña's Center for the Study of Marine Mammals. Mr. López suggests that rising temperatures up north may have played a large role. "We think that because temperatures in the areas where young seals normally grow are higher, they go looking for colder waters further at sea," he says.

The invasions of sea creatures are not confined to Spain. Jellyfish have plagued Italian and French beaches as well this summer, and López reports Arctic seals sightings in Morocco and Mauritania.

But a study by the Center for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) in Great Britain and Munich's Technical University says that Spain is feeling the effects of global warming more than other European countries. Using data – compiled by scientists in 21 nations – that track the flowering rates of 561 plant species, it found that in Spain, spring comes two weeks earlier and lasts nine days longer than it did 30 years ago.

"We found an average net change of six to eight days in Europe," says Tim Sparks, the scientist at CEH who helped conduct the study, which covered 1971-2000. "But in Spain the change was very strong. Spring temperatures there rose about 3 degrees C., which is an astonishingly rapid increase."

Mr. Sparks says he is not sure why the increase is so dramatic. "It may have something to do with Atlantic currents," he says. "We found that, in general, temperature increases were greater on the western coast of Europe than in the central part."

The change is already having repercussions. "Areas of the country that traditionally aren't dry are suffering heat waves and fires," Spark says. "And there have been changes in birds – particularly the white stork – that normally migrate to Africa; they're staying in Spain for the winter."

Last week, the Environment Ministry also released a study conducted by scientists at the University of Cantabria demonstrating that Spain's coastline is shrinking as sea levels rise an average of 2.5 millimeters a year. By 2050, beaches will have receded some 49 feet.

"I wouldn't buy a house in La Manga [a beach likely to be heavily affected]," Raúl Medina, director of the report, told the press. "I doubt my children will be able to enjoy it."

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