The Alps, one of the great mountain range systems of Europe, stretch approximately 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) across eight Alpine countries from Austria and Slovenia in the east, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, France to the west and Italy and Monaco to the south. The Alps were formed over hundreds of millions of years as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided; the extreme compression caused by the event resulted in marine sedimentation rising and folding into high mountain peaks such as Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. Mont Blanc spans the French–Italian border, and at 4,810.45 m (15,782 ft) is the highest mountain in the Alps. The Alpine region area contains many peaks higher than 4,000 m (13,123 ft), known as the "four-thousanders".
The altitude and size of the range affects the climate in Europe; in the mountains precipitation levels vary greatly and climatic conditions consist of distinct zones. Wildlife such as ibex live in the higher peaks to elevations of 3,400 m (11,155 ft), and plants such as Edelweiss grow in rocky areas in lower elevations as well as in higher elevations. Evidence of human habitation in the Alps goes back to the Paleolithic era. A mummified man, determined to be 5,000 years old, was discovered on a glacier at the Austrian–Italian border in 1991. By the 6th century BC, the Celtic La Tène culture was well established.
Hannibal may have crossed the Alps with a herd of elephants, and the Romans had settlements in the region. In 1800 Napoleon crossed one of the mountain passes with an army of 40,000. The 18th and 19th centuries saw an influx of naturalists, writers, and artists, in particular the Romantics, followed by the golden age of alpinism as mountaineers began to ascend the peaks. In World War II the Third Reich invaded the Alpine countries, with the exception of Switzerland and Lichtenstein; Adolf Hitler kept a base of operation in the Bavarian Alps throughout the war.
The Alps are a crescent shaped geographic feature of central Europe that ranges in a 800 km (500 mi) arc from east to west and is 200 km (120 mi) in width. The mean height of the mountain peaks is 2.5 km (0 mi). The range stretches from the Mediterranean Sea north above the Po river basin, extending through France from Grenoble, eastward through mid and southern Switzerland. The range continues toward Vienna in Austria, and east to the Adriatic Sea and into Slovenia.
To the south it dips into northern Italy and to the north extends to Bavaria in Germany. In areas like Chiasso, Switzerland, and Neuschwanstein, Bavaria, the demarkation between the mountain range and the flatlands are clear; in other places such as Geneva, the demarkation is less clear. The countries with the greatest alpine territory are Switzerland, France, Austria and Italy. The highest portion of the range extends from Mont Blanc in France, through the Bernese Oberland and to the Matterhorn in Switzerland; the peaks in the easterly portion of the range, in Austria and Slovenia, are smaller than those in the central and western portions.
The Alps have been crossed for war and commerce, and by pilgrims, students and tourists. Crossing routes by road, train or foot are known as passes, and usually consist of depressions in the mountains in which a valley leads from the plains and hilly pre-mountainous zones. In the medieval period hospices were established by religious orders at the summits of many of the main passes. The most important passes are the Brenner Pass, the Great St. Bernard Pass, the Tenda Pass, the Saint Gotthard Pass, the Semmering Pass, and the Stelvio Pass.
The Alps are a source of a minerals that have been mined for thousands of years. In the 8th to 6th centuries BC during the Hallstatt culture, Celtic tribes mined bronze; later the Romans mined gold for coins in the Bad Gastein area. Erzberg in Styria furnishes high-quality iron ore for the steel industry. Crystals are found throughout much of the Alpine region such as cinnabar, amethyst, and quartz. The cinnabar deposits in Slovenia are a notable source of cinnabar pigments.
Alpine crystals have been studied and collected for hundreds of years, and began to be classified in the 18th century. Leonard Euler studied the shapes of crystals, and by the 19th century crystal hunting was common in Alpine regions. David Friedrich Wiser amassed a collection of 8000 crystals that he studied and documented. In the 20th century Robert Parker wrote a well-known work about the rock crystals of the Swiss Alps; at the same period a commission was established to control and standardize the naming of Alpine minerals.
In the Miocene Epoch the mountains underwent severe erosion because of glaciation, which was noted in the mid-19th century by naturalist Louis Agassiz who presented a paper proclaiming the Alps were covered in ice at various intervals—a theory he formed when studying rocks near his Neuchâtel home which he believed originated to the west in the Bernese Oberland. Because of his work he came to be known as the "father of the ice-age concept" although other naturalists before him put forth similar ideas.
Agassiz studied glacier movement in the 1840s at the Unteraar Glacier where he found the glacier moved 100 m (328 ft) per year, more rapidly in the middle than at the edges. His work was continued by other scientists and now a permanent laboratory exists inside a glacier under the Jungfraujoch, devoted exclusively to the study of Alpine glaciers.
Rivers and lakes :
The Alps provide lowland Europe with drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. Although the area is only about 11 percent of the surface area of Europe, the Alps provide up to 90 percent of water to lowland Europe, particularly to arid areas and during the summer months. Cities such as Milan depend on 80 percent of water from Alpine runoff. Water from the rivers is used in over 500 hydroelectricity power plants, generating as much as 2900 kilowatts per hour of electricity.
Major European rivers flow from Switzerland, such as the Rhine, the Rhone, the Inn, the Ticino and the Po rivers, all of which have headwaters in the Alps and flow into neighboring countries, finally emptying into the North Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea. Other rivers such as the Danube have major tributaries flowing into them that originate in the Alps.
The Rhone river is second to the Nile as a freshwater source to the Mediterranean Sea; the river begins as glacial meltwater, flows into Lake Geneva, and from there to France where one of its uses is to cool nuclear power plants. The Rhine originates in a 30 square kilometer area in Switzerland and represents almost 60 percent of water exported from the country. Tributary valleys, some of which are complicated, channel water to the main valleys which can experience flooding during the snow melt season when rapid runoff causes debris torrents and swollen rivers.
The Alps are a classic example of what happens when a temperate area at lower altitude gives way to higher-elevation terrain. Elevations around the world that have cold climates similar to those of the polar regions have been called Alpine. A rise from sea level into the upper regions of the atmosphere causes the temperature to decrease (see adiabatic lapse rate). The effect of mountain chains on prevailing winds is to carry warm air belonging to the lower region into an upper zone, where it expands in volume at the cost of a proportionate loss of heat, often accompanied by precipitation in the form of snow or rain. The height of the Alps is sufficient to divide the weather patterns in Europe into a wet north and a dry south because moisture is sucked from the air as it flows over the high peaks.
The severe weather in the Alps has been studied since the 18th century; particularly the weather patterns such as the seasonal foehn wind. Numerous weather stations were placed in the mountains early in the early 20th century, providing continuous data for climatologists. Some of the valleys are quite arid such as the Aosta valley in Italy, the Grison Alps, and northern Tyrol.
At present the Alps are one of the more popular tourist destinations in the world with many resorts such Oberstdorf, in Bavaria, Saalbach in Austria, Davos in Switzerland, Chamonix in France, and Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy recording more than a million annual visitors. With over 120 million visitors a year tourism is integral to the Alpine economy with much it coming from winter sports although summer visitors are an important component of the tourism industry.
The tourism industry began in the early 19th century when foreigners visited the Alps, traveled to the bases of the mountains to enjoy the scenery, and stayed at the spa-resorts. Large hotels were built during the Belle Époque; cog-railways, built early in the 20th century, brought tourists to ever higher elevations, with the Jungfraubahn terminating at the Jungfraujoch after going through a tunnel in Eiger. During this period winter sports were slowly introduced: in 1882 the first figure skating championship was held in St. Moritz, and downhill skiing became a trendy sport with English visitors early in the 20th century, as the first ski-lift was installed in 1908 above Grindelwald.