Spain’s Mediterranean coastline, from the Costa Blanca to the Costa del Sol, enjoys an average of over 300 days sunshine each year. When northern Europe is being deluged or is frozen, you can almost guarantee that the south of Spain will be bathed in sunshine. In general, May and October are considered the best months for touring, as they’re generally dry and not too hot in most regions.
However, there’s a price to pay for all those warm days. Extremes are common with southern parts of Spain suffering drought and reservoir levels at an all-time low when at the same time, there may be widespread flooding affecting large areas in northern Spain. As they say in Spain, ‘it never rains to everyone’s taste’ ( nunca llueve a gusto de todos)!
Climatic zones in Spain
Continental Spain experiences three climatic zones: Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean, in addition to which some areas, particularly the Balearic and Canary Islands, have their own distinct micro-climates. In coastal areas, there can be huge variations in the weather simply by travelling a few kilometres inland and up into the mountains. On some islands such as Majorca, rainfall varies from 300 to 400mm (12 to 16in) in the south to over 1,200mm (47in) in the north, and some areas experience strong winds in winter while others are sheltered.
The Atlantic or green zone ( costa verde) embraces the north-west region of the country, including Galicia (which has a mild and humid climate), the Cantabrian coast of Asturias, Cantabria, the Basque Country and the Pyrenees (dividing Spain and France). The region from Galicia’s border with Asturias along the coast to the Pyrenees is the wettest area of Spain, although even here there are some 1,800 hours of sunshine a year (much more than in northern Europe). Summer coastal temperatures average around 25C (77F) and spring and autumn are mild.
However, the region experiences high rainfall of from 900 to 2,000mm (35 to 79in) a year, particularly in winter on the coast, and inland it’s cold with frequent snowfalls (Teruel and Soria provinces generally have the worst winter climate). Contrary to the popular saying, the rain in Spain certainly doesn’t fall mainly on the plain – the plains are very dry and most rain falls along the northern and western coasts. Heavy snowfalls are common above 1,200m (3,937ft) in winter and although snow is rare outside the mountainous areas, most areas in the north of Spain and the Balearics occasionally experience snowfalls.
The Continental zone encompasses the central part of Spain, called the tableland ( meseta), and the Ebro river valley. It embraces the provinces of Castile-La Mancha, Castile León and Extremadura, plus part of Aragon and Navarre, and is baking hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. Madrid is in the centre of the meseta and has the lowest winter temperatures in Spain, ranging from a low of 1C (34F) to a high of 9C (48F) in January. Annual rainfall in Madrid is 300 to 600mm (12 to 16in). The further you travel south from Madrid in winter the warmer it becomes (except in mountainous regions), with, for example, Seville experiencing temperate winters.
Seville also experiences the hottest summers in Spain, where the temperature averages around 34C (93F) in July and August and often exceeds 40C (104F). The temperature in Ecija, between Cordoba and Seville, has exceeded 47C (117F) and it’s appropriately known as the frying pan of Andalusia ( la sartén de Andalucía).
The Mediterranean zone embraces the coastal regions of Spain from the French to the Portuguese borders and is split into three regions. Catalonia (including the Costa Brava) has relatively mild winters, but is also quite humid, with 500 to 800mm (20 to 31in) of rain and between 2,450 and 2,650 hours of sunshine a year. Summers are pleasant without very high temperatures. The central eastern part of the Mediterranean coast, from around Alicante to Tarragona (known as the Levante) and including the Costa Blanca (plus Valencia and Murcia), is warmer in winter than Catalonia and has lower rainfall (300 to 425mm/12 to 17in).
The annual hours of sunshine are between 2,700 to 3,000 and temperatures in summer can be over 30C (86F). The southern coast of Andalusia (including the Costa del Sol) has slightly higher temperatures than the eastern coast (in winter and summer) and between 2,900 and 3,000 annual hours of sunshine. Annual rainfall is just 230 to 470mm (9 to 19in). In winter, the daytime temperature on the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol often reaches a pleasant 15 to 20C (59 to 68F), when the Spanish habitually dress in overcoats and the foreigners in shorts or bathing costumes.
Andalusia includes the most arid part of Spain in the province of Almeria and also the area with the highest rainfall in the whole of Spain in Grazalema in the province of Cadiz. Most rain in Andalusia falls in the winter months, with some areas having as little as 200mm (8in) a year, which may all fall in one or two days, causing flash floods. The Mediterranean coast is also subject to cold winds from the north and north-east which bring snow to the Pyrenees and the meseta in winter.
The Costa del Sol can be extremely windy in winter (it was originally called the ‘windy coast’ or Costa de Viento until the tourist ministry’s marketing men got to work) and parts of the Atlantic coast of Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, experience a particularly strong wind called the levante, which can blow for days at a time (great for windsurfers). The mountain ranges of the hinterland help protect the coastal regions from climatic extremes and funnel warm air from the meseta to the coast in summer.
The Balearic Islands have a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and hot summers, tempered by cool sea breezes (the most pleasant summer climate in Spain). Annual sunshine is similar to the Levante, while annual rainfall is higher at between 450 and 650mm (18 to 26in).
The Canary Islands boast the best year-round climate with warm winters and temperate summers, and temperatures of between 20 to 27C (68 to 81F) throughout the year. Hours of sunshine are similar to the Costa del Sol. Rainfall is low and varies from less than 100mm (4in) a year on Fuerteventura and Lanzarote to 750mm (30in) in the inland areas of Gran Canaria and Tenerife. The inland region of Tenerife experiences around 3,400 annual hours of sunshine – the highest in Spain.
Approximate average daily maximum/minimum temperatures for some major cities are shown below in Centigrade and Fahrenheit (in brackets):
Spain experiences many violent, cold/hot, dry winds, including the terral in southern Spain, the tramontana in Catalonia, Minorca (Balearics) and the Pyrenees, and the solano in Cadiz. Although they’re rare, southern Spain is prone to earthquakes; however, the strongest usually measure only a maximum of around 5.0 on the Richter scale and they rarely cause any damage or injuries. In summer, forest fires are a danger throughout the country and along with droughts, pose a serious long-term threat to the landscape, which resembles a desert in many areas (some 15 per cent of the country’s surface has a serious erosion problem).
Flash floods can be very dangerous, particularly in mountainous areas (over 80 people died in 1996 when flash floods struck a campsite in Biescas in northern Spain). Flash flooding is also common in seemingly dry stream or river beds, which when it rains hard, quickly turn into treacherous fast flowing water. Never attempt to cross a stream or river when it’s raining hard even in a 4x4 vehicle.
Frequent weather forecasts ( pronósticos or el tiempo) are given on television, radio and in daily newspapers. A quick way to make a rough conversion from Centigrade to Fahrenheit is to multiply by two and add 30.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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