Discover a Protected area: Samaria National Park

Dimitris Poursanidis, FORTH, Institute of Applied & Computational Mathematics, Crete (GR)

The Remote Sensing Lab of FORTH (, under the framework of the ECOPOTENTIAL project, carries on scientific research about Samaria National Park (figure 1) as one of the 254 selected National Parks across the European territory and Beyond.

Figure 1 – The Samaria National Park – view from Sentinel 2A


By using the state of the art technology on Earth Observation (EO) and advanced analytical tools, FORTH works on understanding the natural processes over the last 30 years, attributing the observed changes to different drivers in the Samaria National Park. FORTH uses long-term hypertemporal EO data and Local Ecological Knowledge of citizens in the few villages in the area.


Figure 2. Landcover data after the analysis of Landsat imagery from 1985 to 2015 – one every 5 years. With red polygons, the areas that vegetation changes have been observed and attributed to the snowcover duration.

Samaria (White Mountains) National Park is located on the West part of island of Crete and was established as a National Park via a Royal Decree in 1962. It is a multi-designated area, and specifically a National Park, Landscape of Outstanding Beauty, Natura 2000 site (coded GR 4340008 and GR4340014) and Biosphere Reserve in the framework of the “Man and Biosphere” Programme of UNESCO. It has been awarded with the European Diploma of Protected Areas of the Council of Europe. Also, a hotspot for biodiversity and a place with a strong and important anthropogenic environment (history, special songs, traditions, etc.). It contains one of the most extended gorges in the Balkans, the Samaria Gorge, with a total length of 13 km, while other nine main gorges are located within the area of the White Mountains (figure 3). These specific landscape configuration schemes sustain unique abiotic and biotic environmental characteristics, most of them unknown, because of the site’s wilderness and difficultness for direct scientific field work.

Figure 3. Above: view of Aradaina gorge, close to Samaria gorge with similar morphological characteristics.

The specificity of the area can be easily identified in numbers: 58.454 ha, altitude ranging from 0-2.454m, more than 50 summits higher than 2000 meters a.s.l. and also deep marine waters of 200m, 14 different types of terrestrial habitats, 7 of marine habitats, approximately 40% of the entire extent of the Regional Unit of Chania. The entire area comprises one of the two main environmental lungs of Crete and a configuration leading to the current meteorological and hydrological conditions set in the western part of the island. The National Park is characterized by a rich biodiversity (figure 4), a high degree of endemism in fauna and flora, distinctive geological configurations and specific landscape features. Distinctive species of fauna found in the area are: the Cretan wild goat (Capra aegagrus cretica), the largest mammal of the island, the Cretan wildcat (Felis sylvestris cretensis) and the spiny mouse (Acomys minous) which is considered to be rare. The rich avifauna of the area includes 69 species, with Gypaetus barbatus among others. The area houses 172 endemic species and subspecies of flora, while 97 of them are endemic to Crete and 24 are specifically endemic (steno-endemic) to smaller areas. In the marine environment, patched seagrass meadows by the endemic seagrass Posidonia oceanica exists in the area from 10m to 40 m depth, while rocky bottoms are extended across the coastline. Deeper, down to 60 meters, Sargassum forests and coralligenous formations synthesize the seascape.

Figure 4. The gecko Tarentola mauritanica while sun basking on rocky areas of the White mountains.

In the past 3 years, a complete survey has begun in order to identify the Park’s central environmental characteristics. Nowadays, the monitoring system is comprised by: 1) monitoring and surveillance of 15 terrestrial habitats and 34 species of flora, 2) of 256 species of avifauna, 3) monitoring and surveillance of all possible species of fauna, including coastal and marine species, 4) monitoring and surveillance of two marine habitats, 5) recording of meteorological and hydrological conditions via four meteorological stations located in the vicinity of the National Park and transmittance of data through the internet. The basic threats and pressures characterizing the site can be cumulated in: a) landscape fragmentation, b) soil erosion caused by overgrazing and uncontrolled fires c) modifications in water and groundwater regime induced by large scale infrastructures d) poaching and uncontrolled abstraction of endemic species of flora e) massive touristic flow and f) relative medium and large-scale touristic infrastructures.