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Introduction to the thematic issue: “From Geosites to Geomorphosites: how to decode the landscape? Geodynamic processes, surficial features and landforms, past and present environments”

Christian Giusti
p. 123-130

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1Engineering geomorphology (levees and canals, banks calibration, rectification of river beds, drainage, irrigation...) and process geomorphology (mechanical and/or chemical erosion) and their general effects on landforms development (levelling of mountains, alluvial fans, deltas...), were briefly discussed from antiquity (Ellenberger, 1988) but did not really emerge before the Renaissance period, for example in the context of land use planning in the Po Valley (Baulig, 1950). These general considerations and practical approaches arose before the development of geological and topographic mapping, and before the related questions of landforms, landscape, and geodynamic processes (Thorn, 1988; Beckinsale and Chorley, 1991; Giusti, 2006; Kennedy, 2006; Burt et al., 2008). Also during the Nineteenth century concerns about what is now termed “natural heritage” emerged in Europe and in the New World (Depraz, 2008; Laslaz and Héritier, 2008; Guichard-Anguis and Héritier, 2008; Gunnell, 2009), for example in Switzerland in 1838 with the protection of glacial erratic boulders (Aubert, 1989), or the famous “Pierre-à-Bot” in Neuchâtel (Reynard, 2009). But, as interestingly noticed by G. Laurent (1987) and P. Matagne (1999), studies were primarily the concern of naturalists: palaeontologists, biologists and botanists.

2In his Anecdotes de la Nature, an unfinished and unpublished Eighteenth-century manuscript written around 1750 (Boutin, 2006) that was circulated among scientists in Paris, the civil engineer N.-A. Boullanger described an “isolated sugarloaf” on the plateau of Langres (Gohau, 1990). Sensing the concept of what we now term a butte, i.e. a hill produced by backwearing of non- or shallow dipping strata (cuestas), Boullanger suggests in a little known passage the magnitude of denudation that occurred in the Champagne chalklands: for example, “le Mont Aimé, qui est resté isolé au milieu des craies de la Champagne, est un monument frappant; la nature de ses bancs et de ses roches n’a aucun rapport avec le terrain qui l’environne, mais avec les montagnes situées de l’autre côté de Bergère et des Vertus [i.e. near Rheims]. Il en était une dépendance et y était adhérent avant que la chute de plusieurs torrents particuliers dont on y reconnaît les traces l’en ait détaché comme il est”. In his Époques de la Nature, Buffon himself widely used in a metaphorical mode the vocabulary of “epochs”, “archives”, “documens”, of “monumens” of Nature throughout the history of Earth (Roger, 1962, 1995; Rudwick, 1997). In 1814 Humboldt formalised the concept of “natural monument”, Naturdenkmal (Guichard-Anguis and Héritier, 2008). And from R. Hooke’s Discourses to the Royal Society in 1687-1688 until the mid Nineteenth century or so, fossils were for nearly two centuries to be the “currencies” and “medals” of stratigraphy among geologists (Ellenberger, 1994). All these borrowed words initially conveyed to the Earth sciences their own meaning as historical markers (“monument” derives from the Latin moneo, which means “to remind”: Ellenberger, 1994), but they soon also entered the laws of European countries that later institutionalised the concept of “natural monument”, e.g. with the creation of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty in England, Wales and Ireland in 1895; the adoption of the Act on protection of natural sites and monuments of artistic character in France in 1906; and of the vote of the Lega Nazionale per la protezione dei naturali monumenti in Italy in 1913 (Guichard-Anguis and Héritier, 2008). However, as noted by F. Choay (2009), dissemination of heritage practices is a more recent phenomenon, symbolised by the adoption of the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (UNESCO, 1972). In France, under the initiative of some geologists working in the network of Nature Reserves (Jonin and De Wever, 2008) the Digne Declaration was adopted in 1991. This International declaration of the rights of the memory of the Earth states in Article 6 that “The Earth retains memories of its past, a record inscribed both in its depth and on the surface, in the rocks, in the fossils and in the landscapes, a record which can be read and translated” (Digne Conference Proceedings, 1994; O'Halloran et al., 1994; Parkes, 2004; Burek and Prosser, 2008; Grapes et al., 2008).

3The working group on Geomorphological Sites: research, assessment and improvement was created in September 2001 at the 5th International Conference of Geomorphology held in Tokyo (Reynard and Coratza, 2005). As noted by E. Reynard and P. Coratza, the working group was created on the basis of three social needs. i) A need for more conservation. The problem with geomorphological landforms is that they often do not benefit from legal protection like biological sites, wetlands or cultural heritage. There is therefore a need for more conservation of geomorphological sites and especially for adequate tools for assessing their value. ii) A need for more education. Experience shows that the population’s knowledge about geomorphological processes and landforms is relatively poor. In most countries, geomorphology is not part of the curriculum in schools. Moreover, the dissemination of geomorphological information by the media is very often vague, even distorted. There is, therefore, a need for more education about geomorphological processes and landforms. iii) A need for enhancing tourist appreciation. Along with cultural aspects, i.e. civilisation’s heritage and leisure infrastructures, natural features are among the main attractions of tourist sites. Geomorphology is rarely considered as major tourist material. There is, therefore, a need for widespread awareness of geomorphology as a key factor of tourist attraction. There is also a need for more research on the correlative influence of tourist activities and geomorphological landforms and processes (Reynard and Coratza, 2005; see also Panizza, 2001; Panizza and Piacente, 2003; Reynard and Panizza, 2005).

4Given that geosites, geotourism and geoconservation have become very attractive research topics within the geoscientific community, the International Association of Geomorphologists (IAG) Executive Committee and General Assembly accepted our request to continue the working group activities during a new four years period (2005-2009). For the period 2005-2009 some changes in the organisation and the name of the working group were decided. It is now called Geomorphosites: research, protection and education. Five main objectives were proposed for the 4-year period (Reynard et al., 2009b). i) Assessment and mapping. The focus was put on empirical studiesin various geomorphological contexts and on the development of assessment and mapping methods. The aim was to raise fundsfor research and to publish more papers in international journals. ii) Networking. It was planned to develop relationships with other scientific groups dealing with geosites, geotourism and geoconservation. Institutional networkingwas considered as a high priority. International Union of Geological Sciences, IUG, UNESCO and ProGeo were especially concerned. Networking with other IAG working groups was also a priority. iii) Geoconservation. In most countries, protection of geosites and geomorphosites is poorly developed despite growing impacts and pressure from human activities on geomorphic systems, both in developing and industrialised countries. More knowledge of geoconservation was therefore considered as important, both at the institutional and scientific level. iv) Geotourism. The tourist sector is one of the economic sectors that could use the results of our research. We planned to develop scientific conferences and educational programs in order to heighten the profile of geomorphosite research in the development of eco- and geotourism. Particular attention was dedicated to the development of research activities within geoparks. v) Education. Education about geomorphosites, both at university and among the general public, was the fifth priority of our program. To this end, the organisation of a Summer school on geomorphosites under the auspices of the IAG was proposed (Reynard et al., 2009 a and b).

5One of the major themes of the 2007-2009 triennium for the International Year of Planet Earth was to bridge scientific literature and popular political and cultural discourse: “Bringing Earth Sciences to Everyone”. The international symposium “Geomorphosites 2009: raising the profile of geomorphological heritage through iconography, inventory and promotion” was aimed at all practitioners of both Earth and Social Sciences to develop a mutual reflection about all the representations and meanings of geomorphological heritage. The social purpose of this symposium was, firstly, to bring together different specialists to exchange on issues that are common to the Social and Earth Sciences, through the concept of geomorphological heritage and what it involves concerning geomorphology on the one hand, town and country planning on the other hand. The second goal was to encourage the inventory and assessment of geomorphosites by local authorities in order to promote official geomorphosites for education and tourism. Thirdly, the symposium aimed to link fundamental and applied geomorphology with popular science underpinned by the logic of sustainable development. The conference was held in Paris from June 10 to 12, 2009 under the auspices of the French Group of Geomorphology and of the working group “Geomorphosites” of IAG. The conference was held in the building of the Institut universitaire de formation des maîtres of Paris-Sorbonne, welcoming over 150 participants from twenty countries, including Italy, Portugal and Romania, with more than a hundred colleagues who also joined the field-trip to Fontainebleau (fig. 1) and its the neighbouring forests under the guidance of J.-P. Amat and A. Louchet (univ. of Paris-Sorbonne).

Fig. 1 – Some participants in the “Geomorphosites 2009” Conference during the field trip through the Fontainebleau forest (courtesy of M. Calvet).

Fig. 1 – Some participants in the “Geomorphosites 2009” Conference during the field trip through the Fontainebleau forest (courtesy of M. Calvet).

6Five keynote lectures were delivered in the main auditorium by M. Panizza (univ. of Modena), P. de Wever (MNHN, Paris), E. Reynard (univ. of Lausanne), P. Migoń and E. Pijet-Migoń (university of Wroclaw), D. Brugot (Écrins NP) and R. Lhénaff (univ. of Savoie, Chambéry). To sum up, 130 papers were delivered, distributed in two poster sessions and six thematic sessions (TS): Geomorphological heritage in vernacular culture (TS 1); Geomorphological heritage in scientific imagery and discourse (TS 2); Theoretical aspects: geosites and geomorphosites (TS 3); The assessment and inventory of geomorphological heritage (TS 4); From adventure tour guides to geoparks and geotourism: the popularisation and promotion of geomorphological heritage (TS 5); Making Earth science and society converge through geomorphology: educational, cultural, ecological, aesthetic and economic issues (TS 6).

7All the papers included in the 2010/2 issue of Géomorphologie: relief, processus, environnement have arisen from TS 3. In a two-pronged approach to knowledge of mountain environments and of climate change, G. Diolaiuti and C. Smiraglia show how some alpine geosites like the Forni glacier and the small glaciers of Val Viola (Upper Valtellina, Lombardy, Italy) are reacting to modifications of the global climate signal. The educational value of these sites is matched only by their vulnerabilty and fully justifies their preservation as geomorphosites. A similar approach appears in the study conducted by V. Garavaglia, M. Pelfini and I. Bollati on the Forni (Central Alps) and Miage glaciers (Mont-Blanc massif), with a focus on climatic forcing and on environmental response to geodiversity measured by dendrochronology. The Évettes glacier in Haute-Maurienne (Western Alps, Savoie, France) deals with a similar problem, and a comparison between a drawing by E. Martonne in July of 1909 (fig. 2) and a panoramic photo dated July 2007 taken by M. Moreau provides an illustration of the decline that has occurred here since the end of the Little Ice Age.

Fig. 2 – The Évettes glacier in July 1909, drawn by French geographer Emmanuel de Martonne. Sketchbook 10, 26, Library of the Paris Geographical Institute. Compare with fig. 1B in M. Moreau’s paper, this issue.

Fig. 2 – The Évettes glacier in July 1909, drawn by French geographer Emmanuel de Martonne. Sketchbook 10, 26, Library of the Paris Geographical Institute. Compare with fig. 1B in M. Moreau’s paper, this issue.

8The theme developed by M. Moreau, though complementary to the two previous papers, gives a more geographical questioning since it deals with moraine environments as geomorphic markers but also with the perception of these complex objects by two groups of mountain enthusiasts: hikers and climbers. For their part, E. Wiederkehr, S. Dufour and H. Piégay study through the example of the Drôme river another complex object, river corridors, in which a computer methodology permits a discrimination between gorges, alluvial channel beds and sites of high ecological value such as braided channel reaches. The problems of geomorphological mapping, heritage evaluation and spatial scale are systematically discussed in M.-L. Rodrigues and A. Fonseca’s paper through the example of the Fórnia (limestone massif in Estremadura, Portugal). Karst landscapes are also the topic of D. Sellier’s paper, according to whom geomorphic knowledge should derive from an integrated analysis of terrain and a deductive selection of geomorphosites based on intermediate-scale mapping of island, coastal and inland landforms, here in Charente-Maritime. The paper by P. Pereira and D. Pereira discusses the assessment of the value of geomorphosites: the first step of the method proposed is based on identifying geomorphosites followed by evaluation and a qualitative selection and characterisation of selected sites; quantification then involves numerical rating based on a group of indicators, the entire method aiming to promote measures in support of management decisions (protection and advertising). Finally, through a study of French policy on the national inventory of geological heritage, C. Giusti and M. Calvet recall that the term geomorphosites refers to intertwined issues of geosciences, heritage and landscape, the latter explaining why geomorphosites are different from other geosites. In educational terms, geomorphosites may help to educate everybody with the difficult subjects of nesting and linkage of spatial and temporal scales, process thresholds, the inertia effects, lags between signal and system response. Concerning education to natural hazards, some situations such as network geotopes even provide opportunities for developing a reflection on what could be “civic” geomorphosites. Scientific, cultural and societal values associated with geomorphosites encourage the use of geomorphosites in response to social demand.

9In this regard, here we highlight the fact that the paper by D. Sellier has a strange resonance in the aftermath of hurricane Xynthia and the devastation that struck the people and property of Vendée and Charente-Maritime: given the number of victims (29 deaths for the two municipalities of L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer and La Faute-sur-Mer, 12 deaths in Charente-Maritime), the question is raised as to the usefulness of geomorphological knowledge or, equivalently, the enormous disparity between knowledge accumulation (Verger, 1968; Regrain, 1980; Verger, 2005) and the denial of risk by systematic ignorance of hazards, processes and landforms. As editor of this Special Issue, I wish to thank all the authors, referees and editors for this contribution to a better knowledge about geomorphosites.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1 – Some participants in the “Geomorphosites 2009” Conference during the field trip through the Fontainebleau forest (courtesy of M. Calvet).
File image/jpeg, 840k
Title Fig. 2 – The Évettes glacier in July 1909, drawn by French geographer Emmanuel de Martonne. Sketchbook 10, 26, Library of the Paris Geographical Institute. Compare with fig. 1B in M. Moreau’s paper, this issue.
File image/jpeg, 973k
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Bibliographical reference

Christian Giusti, « Introduction to the thematic issue: “From Geosites to Geomorphosites: how to decode the landscape? Geodynamic processes, surficial features and landforms, past and present environments” », Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement, vol. 16 - n° 2 | 2010, 123-130.

Electronic reference

Christian Giusti, « Introduction to the thematic issue: “From Geosites to Geomorphosites: how to decode the landscape? Geodynamic processes, surficial features and landforms, past and present environments” », Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement [Online], vol. 16 - n° 2 | 2010, Online since 07 October 2010, connection on 27 September 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Christian Giusti

UMR 8591 CNRS Meudon - Université Paris-Sorbonne - 191, rue Saint-Jacques - 75005 Paris - France (

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