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Geomorphosites: definition, assessment and mapping

An introduction
Emmanuel Reynard et Mario Panizza
p. 177-180

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1Geomorphosites are geomorphological landforms that have acquired a scientific, cultural/historical, aesthetic and/or social/economic value due to human perception or exploitation (Panizza, 2001). They can be single geomorphological objects or wider landscapes and may be modified, damaged, and even destroyed by the impacts of human activities. The value of geomorphosites is poorly known to the public and to scientists from other disciplines. There is therefore a need to heighten the public profile of geomorphosites, to develop new methods to assess their scientific, cultural, aesthetic and social/economic values, and finally to protect them under a legal framework.

2In order to achieve the goal of assessing and protecting geomorphosites, the International Association of Geomorphologists (IAG) formed a Working Group for the period 2001–2005, which focused on four main concerns : (1) geomorphosite definition, (2) assessment methodology, (3) mapping methods, and (4) site protection. The most important lesson gained from the assessment issue is that it is necessary to select clear criteria that allow the various components of a geomorphosite to be evaluated. Scholars from the universities of Cantabria, Valladolid, Modena, and Lausanne have developed several different methods. Researchers from the universities of Pavia and Modena created a key method that can be used for digital mapping (GIS) and linked to a database of geomorphosite parameters. Regarding protection issues, the vulnerability of geomorphosites was addressed. Vulnerability occurs because geomorphosites are often multifunctional sites, i.e. frequented by a range of users with diverse and sometimes conflicting interests. In order to mitigate vulnerability, four types of action are proposed : (1) improve assessment methods so as to more objectively select the sites of high interest ; (2) improve education of non-geomorphologists in order to increase their sensitivity to the geomorphological value of the territory ; (3) promote management structures such as geoparks ; and finally, (4) improve the legal basis for protection, which can be enforced either through property rights or using public policy. Experiences were shared during workshops and international conferences in Modena (workshop, 2002), Cagliari (workshop, 2003), Mexico-City (IAG Regional Conference on Geomorphology, 2003), Florence (32nd International Geological Congress, 2004), and Zaragoza (6th International Conference on Geomorphology, 2005). This issue of Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement presents six contributions that provide an overview of the working group’s activities.

Photo 1 – Erratic boulder (Ravoire, Mont-Blanc Massif, Switzerland).

Photo 1 – Erratic boulder (Ravoire, Mont-Blanc Massif, Switzerland).

Erratic boulders are important geomorphosites because they witness to past glacier extensions and to climate history. This boulder is promoted by a pannel showing a reconstitution of past extensions of Trient glacier (Mont-Blanc Massif).

3In the first article, E. Reynard discusses the relationships between geomorphosites and landscape studies. Firstly, he reviews the two main currents of landscape research : an ecological school that considers the landscape as the structure of an ecosystem, and a humanistic school that focuses on the perceptions and representations of landscape by Man. Then, the author considers that landscapes and also geomorphosites have to be studied by taking into account two components : the objective and the subjective. Because of the various perceptions of landforms by people or by societies, which depend on culture, education, social level, etc., geomorphosites are given various values, i.e. scientific, ecological, cultural, aesthetic, and economic. E.  Reynard proposes, therefore, a double definition for a geomorphosite : a restrictive one, that focuses on the scientific value of geomorphosites which, as landforms, allow the study of climate and Earth history ; and another, broader definition that encompasses the five aforementioned values.

4Based on this double definition, the two following papers by J.-P. Pralong and by E. Serrano and J.J. González-Trueba, deal with assessment problems. J.-P. Pralong proposes a numerical method for assessing geomorphosites in a touristic setting. The method is divided in two parts. The first one focuses on the assessment of the intrinsic value of the sites. Because of the context, i.e. tourism development based on landscape and geomorphosite optimisation, the broader definition is used and the assessment is based on four values : scientific, cultural, aesthetic, economic. Meanwhile, for each value, several assessment criteria are proposed. The second part concerns the touristic use of geomorphosites. The author proposes two evaluation levels : degree and modality. The degree allows the questions “where ?” and “when ?” to be answered and the modality is a way of examining how the various values are exploited by the tourist sector. Finally, the author has applied the method to two alpine tourist regions : Chamonix-Mont Blanc in France, and Crans-Montana-Sierre in Switzerland. E. Serrano and J.J. González-Trueba have worked in the Picos de Europa National Park in Spain. The method they employ focuses on providing an inventory of geomorphosites and a natural and cultural assessment for their management, particularly in natural reserves. Three categories of assessment are defined : the scientific or intrinsic value ; the cultural or added value, based on a consideration of cultural and environmental elements ; and finally the use or management value, which includes territorial components and the potential for use of geomorphosites. The method is then used for evaluating and classifying 22 geomorphosites.

5The fourth paper deals with the mapping of geomorphosites. A. Carton, P. Coratza, and M. Marchetti have developed mapping techniques useful for the identification, selection and assessment of geomorphosites, and for creating archive maps that provide the public with user-friendly access to information on these subjects. Emphasis is placed on two fundamental points: map scale and archive techniques. The authors have tested their guidelines in various areas of Northern Italy. The last two articles emphasize management issues. B. Smith has worked on the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. The site was registered as a natural World Heritage Site in 1986 primarily because of its geological significance. A management plan is currently in preparation. The author identifies and discusses some management conflicts (e.g. habitat conservation versus Earth Science protection) and points to the importance of maintaining the dynamic nature of the site. N. Zouros’s paper deals with geomorphosite management issues in the Aegean area, especially within the Lesvos Petrified Forest Geopark. The author concludes that geoparks are adequate structures for the conservation and at the same time the promotion of geomorphosites, and can heighten public awareness of the values of geological and geomorphological heritage.

6The six articles represent an overview of major research issues concerning the definition, assessment, mapping and management of geomorphosites in European countries. Geomorphosite research is quite young and more studies have to be carried out. We propose the four following main objectives for the future. (1) Concerning assessment and mapping, it is important to carry out more empirical studies in various geomorphological contexts and to develop methods, because there is still a lack of available methods. (2) In most countries, the protection of geomorphosites lags behind other priorities. However, the impact and pressure of human activities on geomorphosites is growing, both in developing and industrialised countries. Developing skills in geoconservation is therefore important. Furthermore, research on institutions, stakeholder groups, public policies and property rights on geomorphological heritage has to be promoted. (3) The tourist sector is one of the economic sectors that could put to advantage the results of research on geomorphological heritage. In that sense, it is important to link geomorphosite research with the development of eco- and geotourism. Particular attention should be dedicated to the improvement of research activities within geoparks. (4) Educational programmes on geomorphological heritage in primary and high schools, as well as education of the public and media, are not given sufficient attention. Education on geomorphosites, both at the university and public levels, has therefore to be encouraged.

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Panizza M. (2001) − Geomorphosites : concepts, methods and example of geomorphological survey. Chinese Science Bulletin, 46, Suppl. Bd, 4-6.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Photo 1 – Erratic boulder (Ravoire, Mont-Blanc Massif, Switzerland).
Légende Erratic boulders are important geomorphosites because they witness to past glacier extensions and to climate history. This boulder is promoted by a pannel showing a reconstitution of past extensions of Trient glacier (Mont-Blanc Massif).
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Emmanuel Reynard et Mario Panizza, « Geomorphosites: definition, assessment and mapping »Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement, vol. 11 - n° 3 | 2005, 177-180.

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Emmanuel Reynard et Mario Panizza, « Geomorphosites: definition, assessment and mapping »Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement [En ligne], vol. 11 - n° 3 | 2005, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2007, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Emmanuel Reynard

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