In Europe’s Wild Carpathian Mountains, Prospect of Drought Rises

Photo-illustration: Unsplash (David Iordan)

Stretching across seven Central and Eastern European countries, the Carpathian mountain range is home to some of the continent’s largest intact forests. It boasts nearly 4,000 plant species, as well as large populations of brown bears and grey wolves.

In 2003, the Carpathian Convention was established, bringing together the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine, to protect the range’s forests, wildlife and ecosystems. But climate change is threatening those natural assets, with many areas getting hotter, drier and more prone to wildfires.

The theme of this year’s World Environment Day on 5 June is land restoration, desertification and drought resilience. To find out what global warming is doing to the Carpathians, and how countries can preserve and restore one of Europe’s few truly wild areas, we spoke to Harald Egerer. He is the Head of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Vienna Office and Secretary of the UNEP-administered Carpathian Convention.

Why is the Carpathian mountain range so important?

Harald Egerer (HE): The Carpathians are the second-largest mountain range in Europe and a jewel of nature. Forests cover more than half of the territory, including ancient forests that have developed over centuries largely undisturbed by humans. The native flora is among the richest on the continent. The Carpathians host Europe’s largest populations of brown bears, wolves, lynx, European bison and rare bird species, including the imperial eagle, which is at risk of extinction. It is also important to remember that the Carpathians contain the basins of the Danube, Dniester and Vistula rivers, major sources of freshwater in the region.

What is climate change doing to the region?

HE: Mountain regions are particularly fragile. They are more exposed to climate change and weather extremes than the surrounding lowlands. The Carpathian region has been getting hotter over the last 50 years. Its annual average temperature is projected to increase by between 3.0°C and 4.5°C by 2100.

This is creating means more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, erratic rainfall and floods. Drought increases the risk of wildfires and pest outbreaks in the Carpathians, while heavier, more intense rains lead to a greater risk of flooding and landslides. Soil and water quality is threatened. In some areas, such as southern Hungary, Romania and Serbia, falling river levels in summer increases the likelihood of drought and soil erosion.

High-altitude wetlands, which help to prevent flooding by soaking up heavy rainfall like a sponge, are at risk of drying out. This may have potentially disastrous consequences for biodiversity when you consider how many plant species and animals rely on wetlands for their habitat. As well, many migratory birds use these wetlands as a stopping point for food and shelter. Grasslands also risk becoming degraded.


What can be done to reduce the impact of climate change in the Carpathians?

HE: Adaptation policies are essential to protect ecosystems and build resilience to drought and other extreme weather events. For example, there are a number of ways to reduce the risk of forest wildfires. The restoration of natural forests and nature-friendly forest management are of key importance. Thinning or removing shrubs and dead branches, which can catch fire more easily, is one approach. Another is ensuring a mix of tree species in a forest, which can slow the spread of fire. Restoring peatlands and wetlands, one of the objectives of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, is not only good for supporting biodiversity. It can also help to protect surrounding areas from flooding. This is because wetlands hold large amounts of floodwaters upstream, slowing the release of water downstream. On a positive note, there is a lot of work being done across the region to develop knowledge about the climate risk to forests and promote climate-smart forest management techniques.

What other environmental challenges is the Carpathian region facing?

Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Serhii Danevych)

HE: The region is facing different environmental challenges such as deforestation due to illegal logging and unsustainable forestry practice, habitat fragmentation, climate change, land use change and water pollution. The war affecting one of our Carpathian countries raises additional challenges to the region.  There has obviously been a decline in environmental protection in Ukraine, and potentially increased pressure on natural resources, as well as increased pollution. Across the region, waste management and plastic waste is a big issue. There are also pressures on the environment from infrastructure projects and other types of development.

What are some of the Carpathian Convention’s biggest achievements?

HE: For more than 20 years, the Convention has provided decision makers in seven countries with a joint vision and a framework for cooperation to protect nature. This has resulted in hundreds of initiatives and legislation changes at the national level. Many European Union funding programmes have included the Carpathian Convention as a criteria for funding. The convention has also adopted five protocols to protect and ensure sustainable development of the Carpathians with regards to biodiversity, forest management, tourism, transport and agriculture.

What is being done to promote biodiversity?

HE: We are the first region in the world to apply the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework at the regional level. As part of the Carpathian Biodiversity Framework, the Carpathian countries also committed to Carpathian Vision 2050, a strategy to conserve, restore and wisely use the biodiversity and natural beauty of the Carpathians for the benefit of the environment and the millions of people in the region.

It is also worth highlighting our work to maintain and restore ecological corridors in the Carpathians. This is helping to conserve the population of large carnivores and supporting the exceptional biodiversity in this region.

Source: UNEP