Landscape and Climate

It is important to consider these two aspects of Casa Rafela’s location together when planning a holiday there, as it lies in the central of three very distinct climate zones, the Western Pyrenees, Western Pre-Pyrenees and Dry Continental, all of which are dominated by the Mediterranean climate system. As the boundaries between these zones are so close together guests at Casa Rafela are able to make the best of the weather conditions as and when they arise – whatever the season!

The broad valley over which Casa Rafela looks over, the Conca de Tremp, was at one time an inland sea. This dates from the Lower Cretaceous period, (100 – 150 million years ago) when what is now the Iberian Peninsular collided with mainland Europe as their respective tectonic plates converged across the Atlantic. This collision formed the Pyrenees proper, more or less as we now know them. The action of the two landmasses colliding was for the Iberian Plate, being smaller, to roll underneath the larger European plate. The immense heat and pressure generated by the friction of this impact formed granite, and the only place for this to go was up! This has two clearly visible results today; as granite is so tough, the rugged high peaks bear very little signs of erosion, either from the effects of rivers, (hence the numerous waterfalls – the rivers and streams fails to wear down rock ledges into ever more gentle slopes) or from glaciation, as the range was too far south to be directly affected by the Great Ice Ages and the ‘home made’ glaciers, which occur locally in the extreme climate of the central zone, have only limited impact due to their small size. Furthermore, the more-or-less straight, continuous line of the northern escarpment, on the French side of the range is a result of this one massive geological event.

But southwards the picture is very different, why? If you imagine those slow motion pictures of stripped down laboratory cars crashing into a wall, with the poor test dummy flailing around, remember that the front of the car buckles up, while the vehicle itself rebounds away from the wall but returns under its own inertia for another impact. That’s just what happened to the surface of the Iberian plate; only the ‘slow motion’ took place over about 50 million years! While the ‘car’ was in recoil the sea filled in the space in between the ‘wall’ of the Pyrenees proper and the crumpled ‘bonnet’, which formed parts of smaller ranges, the Pre-Pyrenees. Before the second impact erosion took place filling the seabed with new material, including many remains of life on land, forming layers of limestone. The second great impact (and third and fourth down to the nitty-gritty level), scooped up this limestone and heaved it on end, forming dramatic cliffs and leavening some strata appearing twisted as if they were sheets of paper. So the difference between the Pre-Pyrenees and the Pyrenees proper is in their form, i.e. the former is made of layers or strata that have been canted upwards whereas the latter is extruded new rock, and raw material, respectively; limestone and granite. But there’s one more twist in the story; harking back to the test car crash, what happened to all the bits and pieces of miscellaneous material, like the bumpers, radiator grille and headlights? These form a mishmash of materials that crop up in odd locations throughout the range, leaving such oddments as small seams of coal, iron ore and even gold!

Casa Rafela is near the highest regeon of the Pyrenees, with the range’s highest mountain, Aneto (3,404 metres) being just under 50 kms away – as the eagle soars! But this central ridge is quite narrow, and within twenty or so kilomreres the aveage height settles to around 2,500 metres with narrow glacial valleys lying some 1,000 metres below them. This is about the highest altitude at which year round living is possible; Espot, the ‘gateway’ to the eatsern wing of the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici is a fairly typical example of this, with summer pastures further up the valley among the peaks and tarns. Vegetation here is limited by the extreme weather conditions and the scarecity and type of topsoil; few trees survive above 2,500, where snow remains for over six months of the year, and the granite yields little soil from erosion. Rather, the effects of glaciation produce isolated dells made up the debris left by their passing. Vegetation here is typical of Alpine regions and in odd sheltered spots can be very lush in form and rich in variety. Dense forest of fir and pine trees thrive in the narrow valleys however, notably Silver fir (Abies alba) and Austrian pine (Pinus uncinata), or the more rare Black pine (Pinus nigra).

In contrast the Pre-Pyrenees, starting about another twenty or so kilometres from Aneto, have the form of long escarpments, with spectaular cliff faces, and flat-topped mountains. At around 1,500 to 2,000 metres these mountaintops can support vegetation, dense pine or on the colder, wetter, gentler north facing slopes, while on the arid and very rugged southern flanks the typical woodland of the Medtierranean region, made up of a mixture of hardy trees and shrubs like holm oak (Quercus ilex), wild thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). In much of this area there is little running water due to the karstic formations, in which rain water is acidicfied on contact with the limestione a quickly forms underwater caverns and waterways, and the topsoil remains arid. But in some of the valleys eroded topsoil or other factors, such as outcrops of sandstone, retain water and support extensive beech (Fagus sylvatica) forests.

South of Casa Rafela, and dominating the Conca de Tremp, the Sierra de Montsec, an archetypal Pre-Pyrenea range, is noted for its isolation from the main massiff of the Pyrenees as a whole. Although its structure is typical its climate is influenced both by its distance from the high ranges, which produce heavy rainfall, and its proximity to both the Mediterranean climate zone and the Continental climate typical of Spain’s interior plateau, the Meseta. Casa Rafela itself is located between the Montsec and the next large Pre-Pyrenean sierra to the north, the Sierra de Boumort. It looks south-east over the Conca de Tremp, which was a strech of sea that was trapped between the two sierras when they formed. The progress of the Conca from open sea to the exposed former seabed, some of ‘newest’ lanscpae on Earth, makes it one of the most fascinating, and most studied, geolopgical landscapes on the planet – and far too complicated for an amateur like me to explain!

Climate

The data about the weather conditions during our ‘season’ are on references to the official meteriological office statistics. As well as the analyses given below it is also possible to refer on-line to the statistics for last year and the current weather forecasts.

To consider the climate in detail I’m referencing an excellent essay in English from the Catalan Meteorological Institute. This points out that Catalonia has a complicated climate, given the varied topography and its position on the cusp of temperate and tropical climate zones. The main points to note as far as Casa Rafela is concerned, however, is that we have a Mediterranean climate but do receive some influence from the Atlantic systems, albeit reduced considerably due to the mountainous regions of the rest of Spain absorbing extreme conditions to a large extent. Furthermore, the nearness of Africa means that warm air coming from the south and being ‘trapped’ by the Pyrenees means that stable anti-cyclonic weather systems are both common and long lasting.

Within this broader picture, Casa Rafela is located in a region called ‘Western Pre-Pyrenean’ (see map on Meteocat) whose climate summary statistics are summarised below. The impact of the Mediterranean system is reduced due to both the distance from the sea itself and the intervening mountains, the Mediterranean ‘littoral’. This reduces both the cooling effects in summer but also the high levels of humidity experienced there. Devastating phenomona, such as the Gota Fria cloudbursts are unknown. Moreover, the searing heat that makes central Spain a notorious ‘oven’ is ammeliorated by the proximity of the high Pyrenees with their mass of cooler air.

Climate of the Western Pre-Pyrenees

Rainfall Seasonal rainfall patterns Average temperature (annual) Daytime temperature (annual)
650-900 (mm) Maximum in summer or spring and minimum in winter 9 – 12 ºC 16 – 19 ºC

That “Maximum in summer” rainfall sounds ominous doesn’t it! But the devil is in the detail of course. A more precise summary (PallarsJussa.pdf) based on the years 1961 – 1990 is based on the data from the weather station at La Pobla de Segur, which is the most central in the comarca and is also on the frontier between the broad ‘conca’ and the change of altitude as the land rises towards the high mountains. Note that the average rainfall here (see ‘Weather Highlights’ below) is at the low end of the range and that the average maximum, i.e. ‘Daytime’ in the above table, is at the high end of the range.

In general, the statistics for La Pobla serve to illustrate our weather at Casa Rafela quite well, but note that as La Pobla lies on the valley floor it is quite considerably cooler at night; hence the minimum temperatures should be revised upwards. La Pobla is also surrounded on three sides by high mountains, so has rather more rainy days than Fígols. Here is a summary of the data over our letting season:

Fígols weather summary

Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sept Oct
Daily average (ºC) 11 15 19 23 22 19 14
Average maximums 18 22 27 31 30 27 21
Rainfall (mm/inches*) 66/2.6 88 /3.5 80/3.2 48/1.9 61/2.4 67/2.7 46/1.8
Rain Days 8 9 8 5 6 5 5
*Rainfall is measured in millimetres but is often reported on TV in terms of litres per square metre, which is the same figure.

Bearing in mind the changeable nature of all mountain climates, it is wise to consider that the ‘rain days’ as being the total of cloudy or overcast days, especially in summer, as rainfall during this period tends to come in short, dramatic thunderstorms. This explains the rainfall per day apparently averaging at 10mm, whereas, as can be guessed from the ‘record’ rainfall-per-day figures in the main table below (see ‘AP/24’) most rain falls in just a couple of days while occasional, light summer showers make up the rest. April and May have a typical spring pattern with soft, rather persistent rainfall. But the reward here is in the abundance of meadow flowers that this encourages, and in the spectacular rainbow effects that are characteristic of this season. September is clearly the most dramatically rainy month, but this is symptomatic of the so-called equinoctial storms associated with the Atlantic weather system. In this case the exact timing is very much a gamble, largely depending locally on the ‘hotness’ of the summer beforehand, when persistent anti-cyclones can keep these Atlantic weather systems further north, and is certainly not related to date of the equinox itself. It is also worth noting that in all cases entire ‘seasons’ of precipitation may fail, giving rise to serious droughts.

The tables given below are taken from the summary produced by the Catalan Meteorological Institute’s downloadable pdf format report.

Weather Highlights

Statistic Data Code
Record max. temperature 41.0 C (16/08/1987) AbMax
Average of absolute max. 25.9 C AAmax
Average max over the year 19.5 C Amax
Temperature range* 20.3 C
Record minimum -16.0 C (17/01/1985)
Average min. over year 6.0 C Amin
Average min. of absolute min. 0.8 C AAmin
Average annual rainfall 668 mm Rain
Rainy days per year 73.8 D/m
Record max rainfall/24hrs 97.0 mm (16/09/1974) AP/24
* the difference between the average daily temperature of the hottest and coldest months

Detailed Statistics

Code Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec Year
AbMax 20.0 24.0 28.0 29.0 34.0 39.0 41.0 41.0 39.0 31.0 25.0 19.0 41.0
AAmax 15.0 18.3 23.2 25.4 29.3 33.5 36.4 35.5 32.1 26.9 20.1 15.0 25.9
Amax 8.5 12.0 15.8 18.3 22.2 26.7 30.8 29.9 26.6 20.7 13.5 8.3 19.5
Ayear 2.9 5.4 8.5 11.3 15.2 19.4 23.2 22.4 19.4 13.9 7.5 3.2 12.8
Amin -2.7 -1.2 1.1 4.3 8.2 12.2 15.5 15.0 12.3 7.2 1.4 -1.9 6.0
AAmin -7.4 -6.0 -3.9 -1.0 2.5 6.8 10.9 9.9 7.1 1.6 -4.0 -7.3 0.8
AbMin -16 -11 -8 -5 -1 4 4 6 1 -3 -9 -12 -16
Rain 41.9 33.4 37.4 66.5 88.4 79.8 47.8 61.5 66.6 46.0 53.9 45.5 668
D/m 5.6 5.1 5.2 8.1 9.3 8.3 5.4 5.8 5.5 4.8 5.4 5.4 73.8
AP/24 57.0 35.0 50.0 56.0 70.0 78.0 51.0 79.0 97.0 53.0 80.0 51.0 97
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