The highest and most extensive mountain range in Europe. The Alps run in an arc from the Mediterranean coast of France in the west through northern Italy, Switzerland, southern Germany, and Austria to the outskirts of Vienna and the River Danube in the east - a total distance of some 960 km/597 mi. Alpine ranges also extend down the Adriatic coast into Slovenia and Croatia. The Alps form a natural frontier between several countries in south-central Europe. The highest peak, at 4,808 m/15,774 ft, is Mont Blanc, on the Franco-Italian border. The Alps are the source of many of Europe's major rivers - or their tributaries - including the Rhine, the Rhône, the Po, and the Danube. As well as agriculture, an important economic activity in the Alps is tourism: winter visitors come for the skiing offered at numerous resorts; summer tourism centres on sightseeing and walking in this area of outstanding natural beauty. The Alps are also a widely exploited source of hydroelectric power. Much Alpine woodland has been severely damaged by acid rain.
Other alpine peaks include the Matterhorn (4,479 m/14,694 ft) and Monte Rosa (4,638 m/15,203 ft) in the Pennine Alps; the Eiger (3,970 m/13,030 ft), the Jungfrau (4,166 m/13,673 ft), and the Finsteraarhorn (4,275 m/14,027 ft) in the Bernese Alps. Alpine passes include the Brenner Pass (1,370 m/4,497 ft) between Austria and Italy, the Great St Bernard (2,473 m/8,113 ft) between Switzerland and Italy, and the St Gotthard Pass (2,108 m/6,916 ft) in southern Switzerland. Above the snowline - located between 2,440 m/8,000 ft and 3,050 m/10,000 ft - rise permanently snow-capped peaks, and glaciers (the longest being the Aletsch Glacier in the Bernese Alps, which is 18 km/11 mi long) form the headwaters of many Alpine rivers.
The Alps may be broadly divided into three sections - the western, central, and eastern Alps - though the mountain range as a whole is subdivided into many distinct areas, each with its own name.
The western section extends from the Maritime Alps just north of the coast of the Gulf of Genoa to the Great St Bernard Pass, and includes the Ligurian, Cottian, and Graian Alps to the Mont Blanc massif and Valle d'Aosta. Here, on the borders of France, Italy, and Switzerland, the Alps are narrower, higher, and more rugged than elsewhere.
The ranges of the central Alps, running west-east between the Great St Bernard and the Brenner passes, include the Pennine, Lepontine, Rhaetian, and Ötztal Alps in the south, and the Bernese and Glarus Alps in the north. A feature of the eastern part of the central Alps is an extended valley system stretching from Lake Constance to Chur on the upper Rhine, across the Splügen Pass in the Rhaetian Alps, and down the Val San Giacomo to Lake Como in northern Italy.
The eastern Alps rise east of Lake Constance and are chiefly in Austria, but they also include the Bavarian Alps along the German-Austrian border, the Carnic Alps dividing Austria from Italy, the Karawanken Alps bordering on Slovenia (where they are known as the Dinaric Alps), and the Dolomites in northwest Italy. The Austrian Alps include the Algäuer Alps, and the Hohe Tauern and Niedere Tauern ranges in the north. Generally lower and broader than the Swiss Alps, and spanning an area as wide as 240 km/149 mi, the Austrian Alps finally end in the gently rolling foothills and beechwoods of the Wienerwald, west of Vienna.
Many famous peaks are situated in the Alps. East of Mont Blanc, in the Pennine Alps on the Swiss-Italian border, lie the next-highest mountains in the chain; here are Monte Rosa and the distinctive pyramidal peak of the Matterhorn.
Further north in Switzerland, in the Bernese Alps, are the Finsteraarhorn, the Jungfrau, the Mönch (4,099 m/13,448 ft), and the Eiger, with its sheer north face. Around Lake Lucerne, Pilatus and Rigi reach over 1,800 m/5,900 ft. In eastern Switzerland, many mountains attain over 3000 m/10,000 ft, while in the Rhaetian Alps, in the extreme southeast of the country on the border with Italy, Piz Bernina rises to 4,049 m/13,284 ft.
The highest peaks in Austria are the Grossglockner (3,798 m/12,460 ft), which dominates the central Hohe Tauern massif, and the Wildspitze (3,774 m/12,382 ft) in the westerly Ötztal Alps; both are permanently snow-capped. In the Bavarian Alps, in the lower ranges along the Austrian frontier, the Zugspitze reaches a height of 2,963 m/9,721 ft.
Famous mountaineering exploits in the Alps include the first ascent of Mont Blanc by Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard in 1786, and the conquest of the Matterhorn in 1865 by Edward Whymper, four of whose party of seven fell to their deaths when a rope broke during their descent.
The Alps have been crossed since pre-Roman times; the earliest route through the mountains was the Brenner Pass, which runs between Innsbruck in Austria and Bolzano in Italy. The Brenner Pass is the lowest of the main Alpine passes. Remains of Roman roads can be seen on its summit, and also on the Julier Pass (2,284 m/7,491 ft) near St Moritz in southeastern Switzerland. The much lower Semmering Pass (980 m/3,125 ft) between Lower Austria and Styria has connected Vienna with Venice since the Middle Ages.
Other, much higher, crossing points used from early times are the St Gotthard Pass (maximum elevation of 2,108 m/6,916 ft) in south-central Switzerland, and the Simplon Pass (2,008 m/6,590 ft) linking southern Switzerland and northeast Italy. The St Gotthard Pass has served as a transport route since the 13th century. In the western Alps, connecting France and Italy, are the Great St Bernard and Little St Bernard (2,188 m/7,178 ft) passes - respectively to the east and south of the Mont Blanc massif - and the Mont Cenis Pass (2,082 m/6,831 ft).
Passes over 2,000 m/6,500 ft are blocked by snow throughout the winter; this hindrance to travel has been overcome by the excavation of road and railway tunnels under all the main Alpine passes.
As routes of trade, invasion, and pilgrimage, Alpine passes are steeped in history. The Carthaginian general Hannibal is thought by some to have crossed the Alps in 218 BC through the Little St Bernard Pass; the Protestant reformer Martin Luther walked over the Brenner Pass on his epic journey to Rome in 1510; and Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy in 1800 through the Great St Bernard and had his military engineers build the first road over the Simplon Pass in 1800-05.
The Alps are a complex system of lower fold mountains and high crystalline massifs. The lower mountains are largely limestone and other sedimentary rocks, while the higher peaks are composed of a crystalline, magnesium-rich rock known as dolomite. The Dolomite range in northeast Italy, with its imposing jagged pinnacles and sharp ridges, takes its name from this rock. The Alps were formed during the Oligocene and Miocene epochs as a result of pressure exerted on the Tethyan geosyncline (sedimentary deposits in the ancestral Tethys Sea), as its strata were squeezed against the stable Eurasian landmass by the northward moving African landmass. The squeezing action formed the folds (nappes) that rose out of the sea and pushed northward, often breaking and sliding one over the other to form gigantic thrust faults.
During the glaciations of the Quaternary period, huge ice masses carved out deep valley trenches, such as those of the upper Rhône, Vorderrhein, and the Inn in the Swiss Engadine. Material produced by this glacial activity was deposited as terminal moraines across rivers and streams, leading to the formation of the many lakes in the region, chief among which are Lake Geneva, Lake Constance, Lake Lucerne, and Lake Maggiore. Several glaciers can still be seen, notably the Mer de Glâce in the Val de Chamonix below Mont Blanc, the Aar and Aletsch glaciers in Switzerland, and the Pasterze glacier in the shadow of the Grossglockner in Austria. Many Alpine glaciers - for example, those in the Rhône valley, the Bernese Alps, and in the Swiss Grindelwald region - retreated during the 20th century, owing to a series of relatively mild winters and light snowfall.
Fauna and flora
Animals inhabiting the Alpine region include the red deer (Cervus elaphus), the goat-like chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), the ibex (Capra ibex), the Alpine hare (Lepus timidus), the wildcat (Felis silvestris), the marmot (Marmota marmota), and the European lynx (Lynx lynx), which was reintroduced into the Swiss Alps in 1970. Birds such as golden eagles and peregrine falcons search for prey amongst the peaks. Other bird species include the black grouse, caipercaillie, alpine chouch, black woodpecker, and three-toed woodpecker.
Most alpine forests consist of conifers, including the spruce, the larch, the Austrian pine and the arolla pine. Nearly a third of the vegetation sprouts on rock debris and in alpine meadows. A mixed mountain forest - including beech, oak, and pine trees - thrives below 1,372 m/4,500 ft, whereas a coniferous forest exists at an altitude of 1,678 m/5,500 ft. Above that altitude, wind-dwarfed bushes and alpine meadows predominate. An enormous range of plants thrive in Alpine habitats, including primulas, crocus, anemones (which flower in the valleys early in the year as the snow melts), and many varieties of gentian, rhododendron, and edelweiss.
Communications in the Alps improved dramatically throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. As a result, it has become the most densely populated mountain region in Europe. The invention of dynamite for rock blasting (1867), the development of mechanical excavators, and the early electrification of the Swiss railway system (allowing passage through long tunnels without ventilation shafts) all provided impetus to the building of rail lines through the mountains.
The first of the great tunnels through the Alps, the Mont Cenis tunnel (13.7 km/8.5 mi) between France and Italy, was built between 1857 and 1870 and opened in 1871; in its construction, compressed-air drills were used for the first time. The St Gotthard rail tunnel (14.9 km/9.2 mi) was built between 1872 and 1882, and was heralded as one of the outstanding engineering feats of its time. The line, with its spiral tunnel approaches at Goschenen, connected the Swiss town of Lucerne with the northern Italian city of Milan. The Arlberg tunnel in southwest Austria, connecting Vorarlberg with the Tyrol, dates from 1884, and the Simplon rail tunnel (19.8 km/12.3 mi), the deepest in the world, was built between 1898 and 1906. Construction of a new St Gotthard rail link began in 1993, with a 20-year completion schedule.
Swift road travel between Italy and Germany became possible during World War II, when the totalitarian regimes of these countries linked their new motorway networks over the Fern and Brenner passes. The road tunnel under Mont Blanc (11.6 km/7.25 mi in length), between Chamonix in France and Courmayeur in Italy, was opened in 1965. The St Gotthard Road Tunnel (16.9 km /10.5 mi), running through the Swiss canton of Ticino, connecting Göschenen (near Andermatt) with Airol, is the world's longest motor vehicle tunnel. Completed in 1980, it has greatly improved communications between Switzerland and Italy. Many trunk roads now cross the Alps, such as the main motorway route from Switzerland to Italy, which runs from Zürich past the Walensee and the town of Chur.
There are about 11 million people living in the Alps (2002), the most densely populated mountain system of Europe. Even below the snowline, snow cover dominates vegetation and soil up to half of the year. During the summer, the flatter, treeless upland areas traditionally provide pastures for grazing livestock (mainly cattle and goats). Agricultural crops, mainly fruit and wine grapes, are cultivated in the foothills and valleys. Principal economic activities include dairy farming, forestry, salt and iron ore mining, production of hydroelectric power (generated from the many waterfalls and rapidly flowing rivers), and the prosperous winter tourism industry.
Among the most popular winter sports resorts in the Alps are St Moritz, Gstaad, and Davos in Switzerland; Chamonix and Val d'Isère in France; Kitzbühel and Schladming in Austria; and Cortina in the Italian Dolomites. Summer tourists are attracted to Interlaken and Lucerne on the northern side of the Swiss Alps, Lugano and Locarno in the south, and to the resorts of the Austrian Tirol and Salzburg. The increasingly heavy exploitation of the Alpine landscape for leisure activities has caused serious soil erosion.
Scientists have discovered that the permafrost, or frozen earth, that covers the Alps, is melting. Underground temperatures had risen nearly 1°C between 1990 and 2000 - three times faster than at any other time during the 20th century. Buildings, villages, and structures such as cable-car stations built on frozen ground beneath the snow will be increasingly at risk. The pattern of rising temperature witnessed in the region was believed to be caused by global warming.
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