The Tatra Mountains are located at the border between Poland and Slovakia in eastern Central Europe. They cover the area of approx. 785 km2, with approximately 78% of their total area belonging to Slovakia and 22,3% belonging to Poland. The elevational gradient reaches from around 700 m a.s.l. to the highest peak Gerlachoský štit at 2655 m a.s.l. The Tatra Mountains (despite being part of a much greater mountain range, namely the Carpathian Mountains) are often referred to as the smallest high mountain range in the world, with 28 individual peaks above 2500 m but only about 80 km length along its main ridge.
Geologically the Tatra Mountains belong to the Carpathian uplift. The interior part of the Tatra Mountains mostly consists of granite, while the exterior regions are mainly composed of calcite, dolomite, claystone and shale, displaying a variety of different bedrocks and potential environmental heterogeneity (Figure 1). The topography of the Tatra Mountains was substantially shaped during the past ice ages, resulting in glacial valleys and other geomorphological forms associated with glacial and peri-glacial processes (e.g. solifluction).
The Tatra Mountains are representing the wettest and coldest regions in both Poland and Slovakia. The climate is described as Central European temperate with strong continental influences, with July as the wettest and February the driest month. Mean annual temperatures and precipitation range from 5,5°C and 608 mm on 672 m a.s.l. (Poprád at the Slovak foothills) down to -3,8°C and 1565 mm at 2632 m a.s.l. (Lomnický Peak, Tatra’s 2nd highest, also in Slovakia). The highest rainfall spots have precipitation reaching 2500 mm and even sometimes more.
The Tatra Mountains are a continental divide. The northern streams flow into the Baltic Sea, while the streams on the southern side have their outlet in the Black Sea. The Tatras lack glaciers but still boast a unique alpine landscape with rocky peaks, screes, mountain meadows and dwarf pine shrubs, and forests. About 200 lakes, streams and waterfalls, limestone cliffs and 300 caves can be found in the Tatra Mountains.
The Slovak Tatra National Park (Tatranský národný park, TANAP) is the oldest national park in Slovakia and was established in 1949. The establishment of its Polish counterpart (Tatrzański Park Narodowy, TPN) followed in 1954. The parks together encompass the area of approx. 950 km2, out of which TANAP covers approx. 738 km2 (plus approx. 307 km2 of the buffer zone), and TPN extends over approx. 212 km2. In 1992 the Tatra Mountains (including the two national parks) were designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Both parks are also included in the Natura 2000 network: both as “bird” Special Protection Areas (SPA’s) and “habitat” Sites of Community Importance (SCI’s).
The Tatras are harbour to more than 1300 plant species, distributed over several altitudinal vegetation zones. These vegetation zones span from mixed forests, through coniferous forests and dwarf pine to Alpine meadow communities, above which sparse vegetation endures among rocks and screes. About 2/3 of the Tatras are covered by forest ecosystems. Most important tree species are Picea abies and Abies alba, although Pinus sylvestris, Pinus cembra, Larix decidua and Pinus mugo occur as well, accompanied birch (Betula sp.) and rowan (Sorbus sp.). In mixed forests occuring at lower elevations, species of beech (Fagus sp.) and maple (Acer sp.) can be found.
Although being a relatively small mountain range, the Tatra Mountains boas 37 endemic plant species. Examples for regional endemic species are: Erysimum wahlenbergii, Cochlearia tatrae, Pulsatilla slavica and Erigeron hungaricus. The Alpine meadows are renowned for their diversity. About 300 plant species can be found there. On summits lying above 2600 m a.s.l. still 40 plant species occur. Various species in the Alpine environments are interpreted as glacial relicts, e.g. Ranunculus alpestris, Ranunculus glacialis, Dianthus glacialis, Gentiana frigida, Primula minima and Saxifraga aizoides. In snowbed environments Salix herbacea and Salix reticulata are characteristic.
The Tatra Mountains are famous for their large predator species such as the wildcat (Felis silverstris), lynx (Lynx lynx), wolf (Canis lupus) and brown bear (Ursus arctos), which are largely extinct in other parts of Central Europe. Characteristic bird species are the Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Eurasian nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes), rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo), Western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and black grouse (Tetrao tetrix). An endemic subspecies of the chamois exist in the Tatra as well (Rupicapra rupicapra tatrica; Figure 2).
In November 2004 a windstorm calamity caused heavy damage to the forests on the Slovak side, resulting in a large-scale deforestation over vast area. Consequently, landslides and flooding increased (especially during snowmelt), as well as massive bark beetle infestations took place within the deforested zones. While at first this was perceived as a national tragedy, practitioners soon changed their minds and saw this as a chance to change land use from former spruce monocultures to more natural mixed forest.
Table of ecosystem services/functions and available data