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Mid and late Holocene forest fires and deforestation in the subalpine belt of the Iberian range, northern Spain

Abstract

The conversion of subalpine forests into grasslands for pastoral use is a well-known phenomenon, although for most mountain areas the timing of deforestation has not been determined. The presence of charcoal fragments in soil profiles affected by shallow landsliding enabled us to date the occurrence of fires and the periods of conversion of subalpine forest into grasslands in the Urbión Mountains, Iberian Range, Spain. We found that the treeline in the highest parts of the northwestern massifs of the Iberian Range (the Urbión, Demanda, Neila, and Cebollera massifs) is currently between 1500 and 1600 m a.s.l., probably because of pastoral use of the subalpine belt, whereas in the past it would have reached almost the highest divides (at approximately 2100–2200 m a.s.l.). The radiocarbon dates obtained indicate that the transformation of the subalpine belt occurred during the Late Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Middle Ages. Forest clearing was probably moderate during fires prior to the Middle Ages, as the small size of the sheep herds and the local character of the markets only required small clearings, and therefore more limited fires. Thus, it is likely that the forest recovered burnt areas in a few decades; this suggests the management of the forest and grasslands following a slash-and-burn system. During the Middle and Modern Ages deforestation and grassland expansion affected most of the subalpine belt and coincided with the increasing prevalence of transhumance, as occurred in other mountains in the Iberian Peninsula (particularly the Pyrenees). Although the occurrence of shallow landslides following deforestation between the Neolithic and the Roman Period cannot be ruled out, the most extensive shallow landsliding processes would have occurred from the Middle Ages until recent times.

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García-Ruiz, J.M., Sanjuán, Y., Gil-Romera, G. et al. Mid and late Holocene forest fires and deforestation in the subalpine belt of the Iberian range, northern Spain. J. Mt. Sci. 13, 1760–1772 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11629-015-3763-8

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Keywords

  • Forest fires
  • Holocene
  • Subalpine grasslands
  • Shallow landslides
  • Landscape changes
  • Iberian Range