The Alps is probably one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, most stunning natural landscapes. It is the main draw for most travelers to Switzerland and straddles an exceedingly rugged 750-mile trail beginning just north of Nice, France, and ending in Slovenia.
Formed anywhere from 23 million to 34 million years ago, the Alps owe their existence to a colossal tectonic collision beneath northern Africa and southern and central Europe.
The formation of the Alps was a complicated process that was a result of chain reactions spanning millions of years. A brief and broad outline helps shed light on how the Alps now stands where it is.
Before the Alps was the Hercynian mountains, which eroded at the end of the Paleozoic Era. This resulted in a large landmass of crystalline rocks called Tyrrhenia, today called the western Mediterranean basin, whereas the rest of the Europe was flooded by the sea. The next phenomenon came during the Mesozoic era where Tyrrhenia was slowly leveled by erosion. The eroded materials were carried towards the bottom of the Tethys Sea. This phenomenon continued from 250 million to 65 million years ago, transforming the materials into layers of rock composed of limestone, clay, shale, and sandstone.
At the close of the Mesozoic Era some 65 million years ago, a phenomenon called the Alpline orogeny, began the formation of the Alps as we know now.
The Alps covers several regions and countries in Western Europe. It forms the border between France and Italy, as well as the barrier that separates Po Valley in Italy from the lowlands of France, Germany, and Danubian Plain in Eastern Europe. To illustrate the grandeur of this topography, take a look at these numbers:
Different regions of the Alps experience different kinds of climate. Its central location in Europe means it’s affected by four main influences that affect the rest of the continents.
The west brings in the relatively mild and moist air of the Atlantic. From the north, the alps gets cold polar air. From the east is more varied with continental air masses, meaning cold and dry in the winter while hot in summer. The Mediterranean air flows northward from the south. Cyclonic storms and the direction of the winds as they pass over the mountains also affect the daily weather in the Alps.
Of course, the physiography of the Alps causes the biggest variation in weather. Valley bottoms are generally warmer and drier as they are shielded by the surrounding peaks. Come winter, all precipitation at a level above 1,500 meters come in the form of snow, which build up to depths of 3 to 10 meters.
With the vastness of the Alps spanning across several countries, it is but natural for civilizations to form human settlements around the region.
Even though the Alps accounts for only 11% of the surface area of Europe, it provides up to 90% of its waters that flow into rivers and lakes to lowland Europe. These waters are used in over 500 hydroelectric powerplants generating as much as 2900 GWh of electricity.
Raising livestock is still a common source of living in the Alps, but indigenous raw materials such as iron ore have also helped evolve industries in the Mur and Mürz valleys of southern Austria since the 19th century. The use of hydroelectric power has also led to the establishment of electricity-dependent industries such as manufacturing aluminum, chemicals, and steel. Tourism has also been booming in the past years, seeing an increasing amount of tourists from all over the world.
While the Alps has proven to be a crucial topographical region, the human impact on this fragile ecological environment has been severe. This has pushed several plant and animal species to either disappear or be considered under serious threat of extinction. The traffic onto the Alps run up to the millions every year, and the continuous industrialization of lowland levels of the Alps means that the Alps are likely the most threatened mountain system in the world.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!