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" was taken via French from Latin Alpes (meaning "the Alps"), which may be influenced by the Latin words albus (white) or altus (high), or a Celtic word.
The highest mountain in the Alps is Mont Blanc at 4,808 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 higher, but their central chain is shorter and curved; they are located in Italy, France and Switzerland. The Eastern Alps (main ridge system elongated and broad) belong to 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 meters.
The Eastern Alps are commonly subdivided according to the different lithology (rock composition) of the more central parts of the Alps and the groups at its northern and southern fringes:
- Flysch zone (from the Wienerwald to Bregenzerwald). Geographically, the Jura mountains do not belong to the Alps; geologically, however, they do.
- Northern Limestone Alps, peaks up to 3000 m
- Central Eastern Alps (Austria, Switzerland), peaks up to 4050 m
- Southern Limestone Alps.
The Western Alps are commonly subdivided with respect to geography:
- Ligurian Alps
- Maritime Alps
- Cottian Alps
- Dauphiné Alps
- Graian Alps
- Pennine Alps
- Bernese Alps
- Lepontine Alps
- Glarus Alps
- North-Eastern Swiss Alps.
The geologic subdivision is different and makes no difference between the Western and Eastern Alps: Helveticum in the north, Penninicum and Austroalpine system in the centre and south of the Periadriatic seam the Southern Alpine system and parts of the Dinarides (see Alpine Geology).
- Main article Chain of the Alps
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.
- 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 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 change 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 erratics 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.
- Main article History 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.
- Main article Exploration of the High Alps
The higher regions of the Alps were long left to the exclusive attention of the people 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 trees — oak, 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.
Above the forestry, there is often a band of short pine trees (Pinus mugo), which is in turn superseded by dwarf shrubs, typically Rhododendron ferrugineum (on acid soils) or Rhododendron hirsutum (on basic soils). Above this is the alpine meadow, and even higher, the vegetation becomes more and more sparse. At these higher altitudes, the plants tend to form isolated cushions. In the Alps, several species of flowering plants have been recorded above 4,000 m, including Ranunculus glacialis, Androsace alpina and Saxifraga biflora.