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Canary Islands - Enviornment

Canary Islands Environment

Slightly smaller than the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, the Canary Islands consist of seven main islands and six islets, which are the tips of a vast volcanic mountain range lying beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Their nearest neighbour is Morocco, about 95km (59mi) east of Fuerteventura. The islands pack a huge variety of landscapes into a small area, including weird volcanic plateaus, cloud forest wreathed in mist, cliffs lashed by Atlantic squalls and green fields growing grapes and olives. Not to mention the block after block of apartments, international hotels and beaches coated in wall to wall holiday makers that are now as much a part of the Canaries as the natural attractions.

The volcanoes that form the islands' backbone saw the light of day at about the time the Atlas Mountains were formed in North Africa millions of years ago. The highest volcano, Tenerife's Teide (3718m/12,195ft) is Spain's tallest peak and the third tallest volcano in the world after two in Hawaii. All the volcanic activity has ensured that the soil is very fertile, but there are no rivers and the islands have been periodically plagued by water shortages. Most of the drinking water on some islands comes straight from desalination plants.

The varied altitude and rich volcanic soils have combined to create several biological treasures in the Canaries. About half of the islands' 2000 plant species are endemic, including the Canary Island palm, the Canary pine and the dragon tree, an ancient survivor that thrived before the last ice age. Microclimates in the islands allow for great variation in vegetation, from the UNESCO declared world heritage sites of laurisilva, with lichen-covered laurels, holly, linden and heather, to the dry scrublands and semi-desert areas where saltbush, palms and the rare, cactus-like cardón de Jandía grow. The most interesting indigenous animal is the lagarto del Salmor, a large (up to 1m, or 3.2ft) and particularly ugly lizard found only on El Hierro. A couple of bat species inhabit the islands and so do more than 200 species of bird, although many are no more than migratory visitors. The canary, of course, is found in the wilds, but don't expect the dainty caged varieties: the wild cousin of Continental Frilleds and Gloster Fancies is a dirty brown colour.

Theoretically, the Canary Islands are one of the most extensively protected territories in Europe, with 42% of the the land mass falling under some category of park land. The four national parks are the Parque Nacional de las Cañadas del Teide, with Teide volcano as its centrepiece; the Parque Nacional de Garajonay, with a beautiful ancient rainforest; the Parque Nacional de Timanfaya, with active volcanoes; and Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente, which encloses an enormous eroded rock cauldron. The Parques Naturales form the second most extensive tier of parks, but they've generally seen a greater level of human intrusion, such as villages, farms and roads, than the national parks.

The Canaries bask in an eternal-spring climate, with mean temperatures ranging from 18°C (64°F) in winter to 24°C (75°F) in summer. On a hot day at the beach, it can still be pleasantly cool if you get up into the mountains, and you'll definitely need warm clothes if you reach any high altitudes during the winter. Except for Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, the northern side of the islands is sub-tropical, while the south, including the first two mentioned islands, is drier and slightly warmer. There is not much rain except on parts of the windswept northern coasts, and what there is tends to fall on the northern side of the more mountainous islands. The flatter islands, with no mountains to trap rain clouds, receive hardly a drop of rain. On occasion, especially in summer, the sirocco (the hot wind from the Sahara) blows in from Africa, turning day into twilight and coating everything with grime. It's at its worst in the eastern islands, and is known locally as the kalima.

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