Geomorphology of Malta
The Maltese Islands consist of an archipelago of three main inhabited islands and a number of smaller uninhabited ones, which lie roughly at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. The islands cover a total area of 316 square kilometres.
The Maltese geology consists of rock layers with varying hardness and subsequent tectonic processes have affect their weathering. These factors have had a marked effect on the Island’s geomorphology and produced a remarkable variety of landscapes.
Landscapes are areas, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factor. A landscape includes the physical elements of geophysically defined landforms, living elements of land cover including indigenous vegetation and human elements including different forms of land use. Combining both their physical origins and the cultural overlay of human presence, landscapes reflect a living synthesis of people and place that is vital to local and national identity.
The character of a landscape helps define the self-image of the people who inhabit it and a sense of place that differentiates one region from other regions. It is the dynamic backdrop to people’s lives. The European Landscape Convention (ELC), also known as the Florence Convention, was adopted in Strasbourg by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 19 July 2000 and was opened for signature in Florence in October 2000.
European Landscape Convention – Council of Europe
The main objectives of the European Landscape Convention (ELC) are to promote landscape protection, management and planning, and to organise co-operation on landscape issues between Parties to the Convention. The Convention applies to the entire territory of the Parties and covers all landscapes, natural, rural, urban and peri-urban areas, whether on land, inland water or marine areas. It concerns not just remarkable landscapes but also ordinary everyday landscapes and degraded areas.
The preamble of the Convention states that: ‘The landscape has an important public interest role in the cultural, ecological, environmental and social fields, and constitutes a resource favourable to economic activity and whose protection, management and planning can contribute to job creation; contributes to the formation of local cultures and is a basic component of the European natural and cultural heritage, contributing to human well-being and consolidation of the European identity’. The landscape, and its protection and sustainable management, thus contributes to quality of life.
Particularly for a small and densely populated country such as Malta, it is crucial improve the protection of the landscape and increase the public’s awareness about its importance. Implementing ELC would assist in achieving these objectives, and would ultimately result in improving people’s quality of life, and have multiplier effects in other sectors. Thus, the implementation of the ELC in Malta has environmental, economic and social benefits.
At national level, the main provisions of the ELC are already partially covered from existing regulations of the Maltese planning and environmental legislation (particularly in the Development Planning Act, Environment Protection Act, Cultural Heritage Act, as well as the Local Plans). However, additional legislation is needed to specifically recognise landscapes in law and provide for the designation of competencies, criteria for the assessment of landscapes and the identification of landscapes of particular importance. Furthermore, areas exhibiting features of landscape value would need to be identified and assessed so as to afford them better protect. Although work has already been carried out and published by MEPA in 2003, further efforts need to be done.
Areas protected for landscape value – Malta
The Maltese landscape has an attractive and distinctive character and their protection and sustainable management has significant environmental, economic and social benefits. The natural and rural landscapes of the islands are dominated by karstic rock formations, Mediterranean-type flora and terraced agricultural fields. Humans have inhabited the islands for at least 7000 years, while natural processes have influenced the Maltese landscape character over time.
Various Maltese regulations afford protection to landscapes through inter alia the Development Planning Act, the Environment Protection Act, and the Cultural Heritage Act. Additionally, the protection of landscape is included in a number of policies and strategies including Malta’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan and the Water Catchment Management Plan (WCMP). Furthermore, environmental assessment processes allow for informed decision-making that considers the value of Malta’s landscape and its landscape features.
With respect to the designation of areas through national law, Malta has achieved a coverage of 28.5% of its land area and 35.5% of its Fisheries Management Zone. This implies the protection, management and planning of natural aspects and beyond. Some of the different national designations include: Area of Ecological Importance, Site of Scientific Importance, Area of High Landscape Value, Bird Sanctuary, Nature Reserve, Special Area of Conservation, Special Protection Area and Tree Protection Area.
Regarding those areas which form part of the EU Natura 2000 network, management plans or conservation orders have been published for the terrestrial sites, while conservation objectives and measures are being drafted for the marine sites. Such measures take into consideration ecological restoration, regulation of certain activities and public awareness initiatives, amongst others.
Areas of High Landscape Value (AHLV) have been designated under the provisions of the Development Planning Act in 1996, 2000 and 2006, and through the local planning process. During 2006, 5 local plans were approved, and together with the designation of Ghajn Barrani in Gozo, brought on board 42km2 of new AHLVs. The proportion of legally protected landscapes in the Maltese Islands is now 33% of total land area, almost 3 times more than in 2000. The newly protected areas reﬂect the ﬁndings of the Landscape Assessment Study, which had identiﬁed that over 51% of the Maltese Islands had high or very high landscape sensitivity. The total protected area identified as landscape is 105.69m2, which is the 33.45% of the total land area of the Maltese islands.
Malta’s natural landscape is characterised by karstic rock and typical Mediterranean vegetation, which is mostly determined by its geomorphology, climate, biodiversity and different settlement patterns and practices, including agriculture.
The main landscape features are as follows:
Islands and Sea: the main landscape of the islands is the sea and is archipelago, with three main inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino, and several uninhabited islets of which the most notable ones, in order of decreasing size, are St Paul’s Island, Cominotto, Filfla and Fungus Rock.
Geology: this includes the softer Globigerina Limestone with more gently sloping landscapes, particularly along the eastern and south-eastern coastal areas of Malta, and Upper Coralline Limestone cliffs and rdum characterising the northern and north-western regions. Blue Clay overlies the Globigerina Limestone and tends to form clay slopes flowing out over the underlying rock, whilst Greensand provides for coloured landscapes when attaining large thickness. The geology of Gozo is more varied than that of Malta, with more frequent outcrops of Blue Clay being a characteristic feature.
Cliffs and boulder screes, known as rdum (plural: rdumijiet), which house unique rdum communities based on endemic plants and animals unique to the Maltese Islands.
Rifting in the vicinity of the Maltese Islands has resulted in alternate uplifting of various regions of the Maltese Islands. This has given the archipelago a tilt towards the north-east thus creating two main types of coasts. The low indented shoreline of the east is contrasted with the sheer, rectilinear coasts of west Malta. The highest point (253m) on the islands can be found at Dingli cliffs in south western Malta; while the eastern coastlines are drowned. This tilt of the archipelago is also responsible for the predominant north-eastern trend of drainage channels on Malta.
Cliffs of two types can be found along the Maltese archipelago, vertical plunging cliffs and rdum or coastal scree cliffs. Vertical plunging cliffs are formed from Lower Coralline limestone and Upper Coralline Limestone. These lack shore platforms at their feet due to the absence of mass movement processes and are probably tectonic in origin. The rdum or coastal scree cliffs occur when marls of Blue Clay formations are overlaid by upper coralline limestone. The unconsolidated Blue Clay are easily eroded by wave action. After torrential rains water percolates through the overlying limestone fissures resulting in the saturation of the clay. This causes the clay to become plastic and mudslides may occur. The Upper Coralline Limestone on top is undercut and rock falls also occur. A gradual cliff retreat occurs as a result of this. The rdum cliffs are common in the north western side of Malta due to the extensive Upper Coralline Limestone plateau found.
The north-east side of Malta and north of Gozo are lacking in cliff formations. The coasts here are more stable as the geological structure is mainly composed of Globigerina Limestone and Lower Coralline Limestone. Long tracts of low, rocky coastlines of corrosion are found instead. Pools and Lapis characterise this landscape of low lying rocky shoreline. The platforms are jagged especially when cut in Coralline Limestone. Paskoff mentions the two most significant weathering processes, chemical and biological, that prevail in the area. The physical process of abrasion seems to be mostly absent.
Several coastal platforms rising to different levels are found on this type of coast. Platforms in northern Gozo form where Globigerina limestone crops out. Large boulders dislodged by storm waves can be seen scattered on platforms only on exposed coasts. Notches are also found. Beach formation is restricted to the northern shores of the Malta. The lack of beaches means concentrated tourism threats to the rare ecosystems found on the pocket beaches of the Islands.
Malta is crossed by two main fault systems representing the effects of two separate rifting episodes in the vicinity of the archipelago. The older of the two, the Victoria Lines Fault (Great Fault), trends SW to NE, while the Maghlaq Fault system trends approximately NW to SE along the southern coast of the island and has been responsible for the down throw of Filfla to sea level.
A system of horst and graben structures of east-northeast trend gives rise to a series of rifts and valleys north of the Victoria Lines Fault. No well-defined horst and graben systems occur south of the Victoria Lines Fault. Several circular subsidence structures are distributed throughout the islands. The origins of these structures are various, but are mainly associated with solution of limestone by percolating acidified ground water leading to roof collapse of subterranean or submarine caverns.
Trenhaile (1987), Paskoff (1985) and Pedley et al (2002) mention various types of karstic landforms that give the relatively short coastline of the Islands a variety of geomorphic features. The presence of partially or totally submerged karst caves influences the development of coastal scenery around the islands. Paskoff and Trenhaile (1987) mention semicircular coves or circular subsidence structures (see opposite figure) that are distributed throughout the islands. The origins of these structures are various, but are mainly associated with solution of limestone by percolating acidified ground water leading to roof collapse of subterranean or submarine caverns. Wave action during storms can also provoke roof collapse hence forming such coves. These are evident in the southern coast of Malta. The many inlets found are partially drowned valleys of subaerial erosion. Calanques mentioned by Paskoff (1985) are ‘coastal inlets which can be of a gorge-like’ nature. According to Paskoff and Sanlaville (1978) these calanques are fault controlled.
A system of valleys, known as widien (singular: wied), which form an intricate network through which seasonal watercourses pass. Such widien are important natural flood-relief systems and provide one of the characteristic landscape features of the Maltese Islands, which are of relevance to both natural riparian communities, fields and agricultural settlements.
Garrigues, including phrygana: often collectively known as ix-xagħri in Maltese, are the most characteristic natural landscape present, typically characterised by low shrubs growing on coralline limestones and karst. The most relevant example is the Maltese phrygana, a habitat endemic to the Maltese Islands, hence known only from Malta which is based on endemic species.
Steppes and grasslands are also common on limestones and blue clay, particularly clay slopes, with Esparto grass and sulla. These are known in Maltese with various names depending on the geology and soils of the area, the type of habitat and species found, and the use of the area; names include amongst others: il-baqqigħat; il-barr; il-bragier(a); il-ħawli(ja); il-karst, il-marġ(a)/l-imrajjaġ/l-imruġ; il-mergħat/l-imriegħi; il-qortin/il-kordin/il-qrajten; ix-xagħri/ix-xagħra and iż-żrieżaq tat-tafal.
Agriculture and parcelling. Due to Malta’s geomorphology and small size, most of the agricultural holdings are small and surrounded by traditional dry stone walls, often referred to as rubble wall or ħitan tas-sejjieħ in Maltese. of the islands. These walls provide against erosion, but are also important for many plant and animal species.
Fortifications, bastions and urban settlements have also created particular landscapes, and gave Malta the name of ‘island fortress’. This is particularly noted considering the various defensive structures in the Maltese Islands, of which Valletta and the Three Cities, Mdina, the Gozo Citadel, the so-called de Redin towers and the Victoria Lines are the most notable examples.