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Regional challenges in tourist wetland systems: an integrated approach to the Ria Formosa in the Algarve, Portugal


Coastal change and coastal erosion have been a long-existing source of environmental changes. Traditionally, regional changes in wetland systems and their relations to agriculture, industry and urbanization are a major cause for concern. Nowadays, coastal distress has reached even global proportions: the problems of coastal change are strongly linked to the loss of fragile ecosystems, eutrophication and loss of biodiversity. Given that over 70 % of all human activity is in coastal areas, it is clear that many environmental and socio-economic changes occur at a local level and manifest themselves in a spatial context. The physical effect on the geographic morphology is evident in the related consequences for land use. A deep understanding of the changes in land use, and simultaneously in coastal erosion, calls for the integrated monitoring of the most relevant effects in fragile regions. The Ria Formosa wetland system is a unique and very special wetland system in the Algarve (Portugal) and has been integrated in the NATURA 2000 network. The strong symbiosis between nature, agriculture and fisheries, as well as tourism, in the Algarve has led to spatial-ecological synergy. By using coastal recession analysis techniques by means of remote-sensed imagery from 1987, 1989, 2000 and 2007 and by combining this information with available data sets on surface erodibility, a cost surface on multitemporal transitions of land-use classes from the CORINE Land Cover data allows us to assess and integrate a decision-making framework by means of GIS. The novelty of this combined approach to land-use management is the blend of spatial analysis and remote-sensing techniques that share important information on ecosystems at risk. Our findings suggest a growing concern to the area brought by anthropogenic activity. This is studied to a spatial accounting of the distribution of land changes and transitions, where (1) a significant loss of coastal area is witnessed along the Ria Formosa, leading in particular to loss of agricultural land. (2) This loss is underpinned by an increase in leisure facilities to respond to the tourism demand of the region of the Algarve, while landscape metrics suggest that these areas are more volatile for coastal erosion. (3) Simulation through Markov chains on the land use and effects of urban, agricultural, forest and wetland dynamics suggests that by 2026, it is expected to continue to have an increase in urban land, leading to an augmented vulnerability of coastal erosion processes brought by the loss of forest areas which protect from erosion given the root system that directly protects from the existing wave energy and helps sedimentation processes. The above methodology and the availability of data that are freely available render such a combined approach interesting for many other regions of the world, where tourism, coastal change and regional balance are of the utmost importance for sustainable development. The advanced research tools presented here are of critical importance for coastal zone degradation management.

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  1. 1.

    C Factor, or Cover-Management Factor, is used to reflect the effect of cropping and management practices on erosion rates.

  2. 2.

    K Factor, or Soil Erodibility Factor, is the soil erodibility factor that represents both susceptibility of soil to erosion and the rate of runoff, as measured under the standard unit plot condition.


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We would like to thank the Editor and two blind reviewers for their very important comments, which have greatly contributed to the quality and the vision of this paper. We are also grateful to cartographer, Dr. Marco Helbich, for his useful comments concerning our maps.

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Correspondence to Eric de Noronha Vaz.

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de Noronha Vaz, E., Walczynska, A. & Nijkamp, P. Regional challenges in tourist wetland systems: an integrated approach to the Ria Formosa in the Algarve, Portugal. Reg Environ Change 13, 33–42 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-012-0310-9

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  • Land-use change
  • Markov chains
  • Wetlands
  • Algarve
  • Urban growth
  • Coastal erosion