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This article is about the Alps in Europe. For other mountain ranges see Alps (disambiguation).
File:Alps in the Chamonix Valley, near the Mer de Glace.jpg
The West face of the Petit Dru above the Chamonix valley near the Mer de Glace.

The Alps is the name for one of the great mountain range systems of Europe, stretching from Austria and Slovenia in the east, through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany to France in the west. The word Alps means mountains.

The highest mountain in the Alps is Mont Blanc at 4810 m on the French-Italian border. All the main peaks of the Alps can be found in the list of mountains of the Alps and list of Alpine peaks by prominence.


Main article: Geography of the Alps


The Alps are generally divided into Western Alps and Eastern Alps. The division is along the line between Lake Constance and Lake Como, following the Rhine. The Western Alps are located in Italy, France and Switzerland, the Eastern Alps in Austria, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Switzerland. The highest peak of the Western Alps is Mont Blanc, 4810 m. The highest peak in the Eastern Alps is Piz Bernina, 4052 m.

The Eastern Alps are commonly subdivided according to the different geological composition of the more central parts of the Alps and the groups at its northern and southern fringes: Northern Limestone Alps, Central Eastern Alps and Southern Limestone Alps. The border between the Central Eastern Alps and the Southern Limestone Alps is the Periadriatic Seam. The Northern Limestone Alps are separated from the Central Eastern Alps by the Grauwacken Zone.

The Western Alps are commonly subdivided into the following:

Series of lower mountain ranges run parallel to the main chains of the Alps, including the French Prealps.

Main chains

Main article: Main chain of the Alps
The European Alps from space in May 2002.

The "main chain of the Alps" follows the watershed from the Mediterranean Sea to the Wienerwald, passing over many of the highest and most famous peaks in the Alps. From the Colle di Cadibona to Col de Tende it runs westwards, before turning to the north-west and then, near the Colle della Maddalena, to the north. Upon reaching the Swiss border, the line of the main chain heads approximately east-north-east, a heading it follows until its end near Vienna.

Principal passes

Main article: Principal passes of the Alps

The Alps do not form an impassable barrier, they have been traversed for war and commerce, and later by pilgrims, students and tourists. Crossing places by road, train or foot are called passes, these are are depressions in the mountains to which a valley leads from the plains and hilly pre-mountainous zones.


Main article: Climate of the Alps

The climate of the Alps is the climate, or average weather conditions over a long time, of the central Alpine region of Europe. As we rise from sea level into the upper regions of the atmosphere, the temperature decreases. 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 the precipitation of moisture in the form of snow or rain.


Main article: Geology of the Alps

The Alps arose as a result of the pressure exerted on sediments of the Tethys Ocean basin as its Mesozoic and early Cenozoic strata were pushed against the stable Eurasian landmass by the northward-moving African landmass. Most of this occurred during the Oligocene and Miocene epochs. The pressure formed great recumbent folds, or nappes, that rose out of what had become the Tethys Sea and pushed northward, often breaking and sliding one over the other to form gigantic thrust faults. Crystalline rocks, which are exposed in the higher central regions, are the rocks forming Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and high peaks in the Pennine Alps and Hohe Tauern.

The landscape seen today is mostly formed by glaciation during the past two million years. At least five ice ages have done much to remodel the region, scooping out the lakes and rounding off the limestone hills along the northern border. Glaciers have been retreating during the past 10,000 years, leaving large granite boulders scattered in the forests in the region. As the last ice age ended, it is believed that the climate changed so rapidly that the glaciers retreated back into the mountains in a span of about 200 to 300 years.

Political history

Main article: Political history and modern state of the inhabitants of the Alps

Little is known of the early dwellers in the Alps, save from the scanty accounts preserved by Roman and Greek historians and geographers. A few details have come down to us of the conquest of many of the Alpine tribes by Augustus.

The successive emigration and occupation of the Alpine region by various Teutonic tribes from the 5th to the 6th centuries are known only in outline, because to them, as to the Frankish kings and emperors, the Alps offered a route from one place to another rather than a permanent residence.

It is not until the final breakup of the Carolingian Empire in the 10th and 11th centuries that it becomes possible to trace out the local history of the Alps.


Main article: Exploration of the High Alps

The higher regions of the Alps were long left to the exclusive attention of the men of the adjoining valleys, even when Alpine travellers (as distinguished from Alpine climbers) began to visit these valleys. The two men who first explored the regions of ice and snow were H.B. de Saussure (1740-1799) in the Pennine Alps, and the Benedictine monk of Disentis, Placidus a Spescha (1752-1833, most of whose ascents were made before 1806, in the valleys at the sources of the Rhine.


A natural vegetation limit with altitude is given by the presence of the chief deciduous treesoak, beech, ash and sycamore maple. These do not reach exactly to the same elevation, nor are they often found growing together; but their upper limit corresponds accurately enough to the change from a temperate to a colder climate that is further proved by a change in the wild herbaceous vegetation. This limit usually lies about 1200 m above the sea on the north side of the Alps, but on the southern slopes it often rises to 1500 m, sometimes even to 1700 m.

It must not be supposed that this region is always marked by the presence of the characteristic trees. The interference of man has in many districts almost removed them, and, excepting the beech forests of the Austrian Alps, a considerable wood of deciduous trees is rare. In many districts where such woods once existed, their place has been occupied by the Scots pine and Norway spruce, which suffer less from the ravages of goats, the worst enemies of tree vegetation. The mean annual temperature of this region differs little from that of the British Islands; but the climate conditions are widely different. Here snow usually lies for several months, till it gives place to a spring and summer considerably warmer than the average of British seasons.


Species common to the Alps. These are most numerously found in the 15% of the Alps protected in parks and reserves.

See also

External links


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