The Carpathians are a centre of biodiversity in Europe. Although they contain a high amount of natural and cultural heritage, the general public still only has a little insight about the often hidden or overlooked beauty of this unique mountain range. Today, on the World Environment Day, it is worth to take a look into how the forces of the Earth have shaped the Carpathians and understand more about the uniqueness of their ecosystems underlined by the large amount of protected areas and protected area networks along this mountain system.
Geology and geomorphology
The Carpathian Mountains stretch across a large part of Central and Eastern Europe. They start in Slovakia and then go east, while expanding their width to reach the Czech Republic and Poland to the north, as well as Hungary to the south. Then they curve in south-eastern direction, passing the Ukraine to the east. There, they turn southwards and cross Central Romania and end in Serbia, close to where Danube intercepts them at the Iron Gate. The Carpathians are the second largest mountain range in Europe, right after the Alps, and are 900 km long. The highest peak of this majestic mountain range is Gerlachovský štít (2655 m) in Slovakia, in the High Tatras. In addition to the High Tatras, the Carpathians reach high altitudes also in Romania with multiple peaks over 2500 m.
The Carpathians are divided into the Western Carpathians in Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary and Poland, where the north half are the Outer Carpathians and the south half are the Inner Carpathians. Towards the east, the Eastern Carpathians are again divided into Outer and Inner, following the line of their western counterparts in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania. The Southern Carpathians, Western Romanian Carpathians and Transylvanian Plateau are in central Romania, where the mountain ridges turn again towards the west. The southernmost part of the Carpathians are the Serbian Carpathians.
Despite almost touching the Alps that start just on the other side of the Danube valley in Austria, the Carpathians differ in multiple ways from their famous neighbour. During the recent ice ages, the Alps were largely covered in ice, while within the Carpathians only the highest peaks were glaciated. This led to very different relief forms, as the Carpathians were shaped principally by water rather than ice. Therefore, the typical glacial features, such as U-shaped valleys, cirques or moraines, are rare in the Carpathians. The most common rock in the Carpathians is flysch, which is only present in a narrow strip in the Alps. However, both mountain ranges formed rather recently during the Alpine orogeny, about 100 million years ago in the late Mesozoic. They both emerged because of the collision between the African and the European tectonic plates. As a result of this collision that pushed the rocks upwards, nowadays we can enjoy the beautiful mountain peaks of the Carpathians.
The geology and geomorphology of the Carpathians and the evolution of flora and fauna in the glacial periods and post-glacial era led to an exceptional biodiversity in this region. They encompass the largest forests in natural state in Central and Western Europe, and the biggest area of original European beech forests located mostly in the Southern and Eastern Carpathians. It is still possible to find areas of forests, where human impact is minimal and where primeval and native forests have the chance to develop naturally. The most significant forest communities of the Carpathians are floodplain, fen and bog forests, beech and mixed beech forests with fir and spruce as well as with sporadic stands of yews, oak-hornbeam forests, spruce and fir-spruce forests, scree forests and pine forests.
Since ancient times, man has been present in the Carpathians and contributed to the development of non-forest habitats, that would have otherwise stayed covered by extensive forests. Naturally, non-forest habitats mostly only occur above the tree line, which is about 5% of the total area of the Carpathians. However, through human influence, entirely new plant compositions were formed in the expanding grasslands. These grasslands provide a home for rich biodiversity, and the impact on some non-forest habitats was considered positive. However, with the start of large-scale agricultural production, mechanisation, intense fertilisation and a race to cultivate more profitable plant species in order to meet the increased demand, the destruction to species diversity increased disproportionately.
Another valuable, but rarer ecosystem of the Carpathians is represented by wetlands. Beside their importance from the perspective of biodiversity conservation, they also provide a wide variety of unique ecosystem services that are essential for humans. These habitats include aquatic habitats, riparian vegetation, wet grasslands, peatlands, wetland forests, springs and subterranean wetlands. The biggest danger in the conservation of these wetlands is posed by human-induced changes in the hydrological regime.
Protected areas of the Carpathians
The Carpathians are strongholds of biodiversity, home to about one-third of all European vascular plant species, the most significant areas of primeval forests and the largest remaining European populations of large carnivores. Carpathian protected areas serve to protect and conserve the outstanding natural and cultural values of this mountain system. These protected areas include the most unique habitats of forests, mountain grasslands and wetlands.
National parks can be found in all Carpathian countries. Other types of protected areas in the national systems include Protected Landscape Areas, landscape parks, National Nature Reserves, Nature Reserves, National Nature Monuments, Nature Monuments, Forest Reserves, Protected Sites and Protected Landscape Elements.
The five EU-member states, within which the Carpathians are located, also include Natura 2000 sites, which comprise Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated respectively under the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive. Moreover, according to the Ramsar Convention, 12 Carpathian sites have been included in the Wetlands of International Importance.
Since 2006, the Carpathian Network of Protected Areas, operating under the umbrella of the Carpathian Convention, has established a platform of cooperation between the protected areas, to facilitate discussions and cooperation between protected area administrations.
Protecting the Carpathians
The biggest changes in the ecosystems of the Carpathians occurred because of human activities. Due to climate change, habitats are changing, and species diversity is declining. Unsustainable mass tourism and the cultivation of various plants and animals contributed to the introduction of invasive species into natural habitats. Air and water pollution, infrastructure development, the abandonment of the traditional methods of farming and a lack of understanding of the sustainable use of Carpathian ecosystem services have an increasingly negative impact on the biodiversity of the Carpathians. It is necessary to prevent the further fragmentation of Carpathian habitats and to improve ecological connectivity and continuity of habitats in the Carpathian landscape.
The most appropriate way of protecting Carpathian nature is through coordinated action. Centralparks brings together partners who are passionate about the preservation of Carpathian biodiversity. The Centralparks project focuses on integrating comprehensive approaches to conservation, planning and management of natural resources and cultural landscapes. Centralparks facilitates transboundary cooperation to improve management capacities of Carpathian protected areas both for the benefit of biodiversity and for the prosperity of Carpathian communities.