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The Pyrenees: Regions, Geology, Hydrography, and Vegetation

Updated on April 7, 2014
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The Pyrenees is a mountain chain dividing southern France and northern Spain. On the French side it stretches 260 miles (420 km) from Cape Cerbère on the Mediterranean to the Bidassoa River, which empties into the Bay of Biscay. On the Spanish side the chain extends 317 miles (510 km) from Cape Creus on the Mediterranean to the Bidassoa River.

Facing France, the mountains often rise like a great wall, but on the Spanish side the slopes spread out in a series of roughly parallel sierras. At the western end the mountain chain loses itself in the deeply cut terrain of the Basque country, but in the east it ends high above the Roussillon region.

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Regions

The Pyrenees are divided into three principal natural regions -the Atlantic, central, and Mediterranean- by differences in structure, climate, and vegetation and by the peoples who live there. The Atlantic region is inhabited by Basques, who dwell in the lower mountains. In the central region the landscape takes on an imposing mountainous character. The central Spanish Pyrenees are inhabited by the Aragonese. The Mediterranean Pyrenees have softer mountain forms, especially where glaciers have smoothed their summits. This region is inhabited by the Catalans. Each of these peoples is ethnically and linguistically distinct, and each has had since 1983 its own autonomous region within Spain. Catalans also live in the Principality of Andorra, a traditionally agricultural country that is so mountainous that only 4% of the land can be farmed.

Geology

The Pyrenees were formed during the Tertiary period. Exposed crystalline rock is found in the uplands, while the lower slopes are composed of folded limestone. Glaciated in the distant past, the Pyrenees do not now have any sizable glaciers. Pico de Aneto, 11,168 feet (3,404 meters), is the highest peak.

Hydrography and Vegetation

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Massive upheavals during the Quaternary period and later volcanic action created a highly irregular terrain. The river system thus formed includes the Garonne and the Ariège in the center of the French side, the Adour in the west, and the Aude in the east. On the Spanish side nearly all streams flow toward the Ebro, particularly those of Aragón and Catalonia: the Aragón, Gállego, Noguera Ribagorzana, Noguera Pallaresa, and Segre. At the ends of the chain the rivers include the Bidassoa and the Nive in the west and the Agly, Tet, Tech, Fluviá, Ter, and Llobregat in the east.

The present glaciers, retreating everywhere, are on only the highest mountains, especially in the north and west, the directions from which the precipitation comes. The abundance of rain gives the Basque country and Béarn magnificent vegetation, with oak groves yielding to heaths of ferns and gorses. Beeches and firs are found to about 5,200 feet (1,585 meters). The Mediterranean Pyrenees, on the contrary, are dry slopes, although sea winds sometimes deluge them with rain. Evergreen oaks grow there at low altitudes, and, where they have been destroyed, there are wastelands or brush—monte bajo or tomillares in Spain. A species of pine grows on the upper slopes and summits. Many forests have been partially cut or destroyed to make room for pastures or fields or to supply wood for old ironworks or shipbuilding.

Human Activities

Since prehistoric times people have been drawn to the Pyrenean valleys. Some caves have been inhabited since Neolithic times, and many are famed for pictures by Stone Age artists. Iberians, Celts, and Romans have occupied them in turn, and it is thought that the Basques in the west possibly are descendants of an ancient Iberian people. The Pyrenees also were a pathway for the invading hordes of Vandals and Visigoths. After these intruders came the Arabs, who penetrated north into France before they were halted in 732. Since the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, the Franco-Spanish border has been unchanged.

The Pyrenean population is found chiefly on exposed hillsides (soulanes) in the valleys, where various agricultural activities are possible. In the west, maize is grown to an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,525 meters), and vineyards cover many slopes in the Corbières and Roussillon valleys, yielding such wines as Banyuls, Corbières, and Agly. Traditional food crops have been augmented by buckwheat and potatoes.

The raising of beef cattle has been the chief occupation in the Pyrenees, and progress has been made in raising dairy cattle. In the summer the animals are driven to the uplands where pastures are very often communally owned.

The rural population dwindles on both slopes, drawn to the plains, the cities, and industry. Iron is still mined, especially in France's Hautes-Pyrénées department and, in the east, at Puymorens and on the Massif du Canigou. Other minerals include lead, zinc, magnesium, and bauxite. Seams of potash are worked in Catalonia and near Pamplona. Marble is abundant and varied, and the talc quarries of Luzenac in Ariège furnish much of the world's production.

The heavy industries are on the periphery—in Catalonia, Ariège, Hautes-Pyrénées, and the Basque country—and they include electrochemicals (nitrogen and calcium carbide) and electrometallurgy, especially aluminum. There is also light industry: footwear in the Basque country; textiles in Guipúzcoa, Catalonia, the Bigorre region, and Ariège; and paper in Catalonia, Guipúzcoa, and the valleys of the Salat and Garonne.

Industries increasingly depend on electricity. Large and small waterfalls are harnessed on both sides of the Pyrenees, especially on the central French slopes, in Catalonia, and in the Spanish Basque country. Natural gas is found in the French piedmont, and allied to it is enormous sulfur production at Lacq.

Tourism and winter sports are important to the economy. The numerous well-known watering places include Ax-les-Thermes, Luchon, and Cauterets, which have been frequented since antiquity. France has such tourist or religious centers as Bayonne, Pau, Lourdes, and Perpignan, and such great seaside resorts or spas as Biarritz, St. Jean-de-Luz, Hendaye, Dax, and Luchon.

In 1967 France founded the Pyrenees National Park to protect the environment from unsuitable economic development. The park, covering 193 square miles (500 sq km), is located in the departments of Hautes-Pyrénées and Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Its headquarters is at Tarbes.

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