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Abruzzo - The Natural Environment

From a morphological point of view, it can be divided into two parts, each with its own characteristics. The mountainous western stretch is formed by calcareous rocks with marked Karst phenomena; it extends beyond the Apenninic watershed of the Mounts della Laga (2,455 m.), of Gran Sasso (2,912 m.) and of the massif of Maiella (2,795 m.) and includes the upper basins of the Liri and the Salto, flowing into the Tyrrhenian Sea, the eastern slope of the Mounts Simbruini and of Meta and the large inland basins of Fucino, Sulmona and Piano delle Cinquemiglia, isolated by the chains of Velino (2,487 m.), Sirente (2,349 m.) and Montagna Grande (2,151 m.).

The eastern area consists of a broad hilly Pre-Apennine stretch, constituted of clay and Cenozoic limestone rock, severely eroded. This slopes gently down to the coast, fringed with wide, sandy beaches, frequently interrupted by river mouths. The mountains condition the river formation in Abruzzo. The inland waterways flow longitudinally and subsequently make their way through deep transverse gorges (gorges of Popoli and of Barrea), then flowing nearly parallel to one another across the mountains.

The main rivers are the Aterno-Pescara, the Sangro and the Vomano, all of them flowing into the Adriatic Sea. The Sagittario, tributary of the Aterno-Pescara, receives the waters of Lake Scanno, the only natural lake of a certain importance in the region.

The climate in Abruzzo is influenced by the altitude and the lie of the mountains. The Adriatic side of the Apennines is characterized by an average annual temperature fluctuating between 12 and 16 C, while the average on the western slopes rarely reaches 12 C. The precipitations on the mountains exposed to the influence of the Tyrrhenian Sea can exceed 1,700 mm/year. Snowfall on the mountains is generally heavy. The region even has a small glacier, the only one in the Apennines.

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Natural vegetation in Abruzzo follows a characteristic sequence of altimetrical zones. On the coast, the Mediterranean scrub has been replaced by crops, including olives and vines, up to 600 m. but holly oak, flowering ash and black hornbeam are present.

These give way to oakwoods, partly replaced by chestnuts, at over 1,000 m. and then beechwoods. Conifer woods, cut down to increase grazing, still exist on the Maiella and in the upper valley of the Sangro (Villetta Barrea). At over 2,000 m. alpine flowers make an appearance, with gentians, rhododendrons and edelweiss (not found, however, on the Gran Sasso). A typical Apennine mountain environment is that of the Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo which, established in 1922, extends over the central Apennines among Abruzzo, Latium and Molise, on an area of about 40,000 hectares, surrounded by 60,000 hectares of external protected areas, with crests rising to over 2,000 m. (Monte Petroso, 2,247 m.; La Meta, 2,241 m.), while the adjoining valleys, the site of the inhabited centres and the major activities, lie at about 1,000 m. About two thirds of the vegetation is thick forest, mainly beech, with sometimes colossal trees, hundreds of years old. Particularly interesting is the presence, at Coppio Oscuro di Barrea, of a stand of birch, while in the heart of the park, surviving trees and plants include the Villetta Barrea variety of the black pine, the gentian, yellow lady's slipper, columbine, yellow globe flower and the famous marsican iris, one of the endemic species in the park.

The fauna is equally important: the pride of the park and its main feature is the brown 'Marsica' bear (80-100 specimens) and the equally appealing Abruzzo chamois (400-450 specimens). The park is the habitat of the last surviving Apennine wolves; also important is the presence of the otter, wild cat, marten and other elements of Apennine fauna, including the southern squirrel. Other remaining mammals are the red deer and roe deer. Bird life includes the golden eagle, the eagle-owl, the goshawk, the lilford woodpecker, the Apennine rock partridge and the alpine finch. Reptiles include the Orsini viper, and the spotted salamander of the Apennines and many insects are also to be found.

Another characteristic Abruzzo mountain environment is that of the Maiella, with its huge severe calcareous bastions dominating the entire southern coastal side of Abruzzo. Among the Karst phenomena are swallow holes, dolinas and above all grottos (the Cavallone grotto is famous). Of the glaciations, remain traces of ancient glaciers with cirques and morainic amphitheatres. Vast woods mantle each mountain slope, from 900 to about 1,800 m.: all the forests have a wealth of beautiful flowers. The high pastures are the habitat of exclusively native species, such as the alpine poppy and the Maiella edelweiss. The fauna also includes a few 'Marsica' bears and the odd Apennine wolf, while the wild boar is becoming more common.

Among the natural curiosities of Abruzzo are the Atri calanque, in the Teramano area, strange erosion phenomena called 'bolge', which have formed picturesque landscapes of great ecological value. The deep gullies caused by the waters on the soft clay slopes are mellowed by clay-loving plants, particularly the sky-blue artemisia.

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