The Alps are the youngest and highest mountain system in Europe. They stretch across the western and southern part of the continent in a broad arc. The mountain range starts near the Mediterranean Seaon the border between France and Italy. Then it curves north- and eastward through northern Italy, Switzerland Liechtenstein, southern Germany, Austria and Slovenia.
The Alps are about 1,000 km long, the broadest section over 260 km wide. The highest peak, Mont Blanc, situated on the border between France, Italy and Switzerland, rises 4807 meters above sea level . Other famous peaks are the Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn, the Großglockner and the Zugspitze.
The whole mountain range is divided into three sections:
- The western Alps lie west of the Great St. Bernard Pass and include the highest mountains.
- The central Alps lie between the Great St. Bernard and Lake Constance.
- The eastern Alps stretch east of Lake Constance into Austria, northern Italy, southern Germany and Slovenia. They are the lowest section of the mountain range .
How the Alps were formed
Millions of years ago the area of today’s Alps was covered by a large sea that separated Europe and Africa. The southern land mass started moving northwards. This movement folded rock layers at the bottom of the sea. Heat and pressure transformed the rock and pushed the material upwards . Today these regions are the highest parts of the Alps. Most of the newly formed rock is granite and gneiss, but many ranges consist of limestone which also formed on the seabed.
During the Ice Age, which started about a million years ago, the Alps were covered with a thick blanket of snow. Glaciers moved down valleys and made them wider and deeper. As they moved they took rock and other material with them, creating moraines. When glaciers started to melt water filled up behind these natural dams and created the alpine lakes we know today.
The largest of these glaciers is the Aletsch in Switzerland which reaches a length of about 25 km. The longest glacier of the eastern Alps is the 8 km long Pasterze, at the foot of the Großglockner.
The ice and snow of the alpine regions helped create the large rivers of today : the Rhine, Rhone, Danube and the Po.
The Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland - Jo Simon on Flickr
In general, the Alps have a highlands climate. Higher areas are colder than the valleys and they get more rainfall and snow because cold air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air.
Sometimes warm dry foehn winds, blow downward along the mountain sides. The air originates in the Mediterranean area, climbs over the southern Alps where it loses almost all of its moisture and on the back side becomes so dry and warm that its melts the snow and ice . This often leads to a rise in temperature of up to 20 °C in the colder valleys .
Plants and vegetation
Many kinds of plants grow in the various areas of the Alps. The valleys have rich, green pastures with beech and oak trees growing in the lower regions. These trees are deciduous, which means they lose their leaves each year.
The higher areas are dominated by evergreens mainly spruce, pine and fir trees. Above the tree line, which is located between 1700 and 2000 meters above sea level you can find alpine meadows, mosses, shrubs and unique flowers like the Edelweiss. The highest parts of the Alps (regions above 2 800 metres) are covered with snow, ice and barren rock.
Animals living in alpine regions must become used to living in higher mountain locations.
The ibex is a sturdy wild goat that lives above the tree line. alpine marmots are thick-bodied squirrels that hibernate in burrows. The chamois is a graceful animal that looks like an antelope.
Alpine marmot - Dev Anubis
Farming is an important economic activity in valleys and on the sunny sides of the lower slopes. Small family farms are very common in alpine areas. The main crops are barley, oats and rye, as well as corn and wheat. Farmers also raise cattle, goats and sheep. Dairy farms produce milk and other products for a large part of the population. Wine is grown in sunny areas of the southern Alps up to a sea level of 600 meters.
Most of the energy comes from the hydroelectric power plants that operate either high up in the mountains or on rivers. These power stations produce enough energy so that surpluses can be exported to other European countries.
In the 20th century tourism became one of the main sections of the economy. Skiing resorts have become popular throughout the region. Famous winter resorts include Grenoble and Chamonix (France), St. Moritz (Switzerland), Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany) and Kitzbühel and the Arlberg in Austria . Numerous Olympic Games have also taken place in the Alps.
Skiing resorts in the Alps
History and Transportation
People have lived in the Alps for thousands of years. German cultures developed in the eastern Alps while Roman culture influenced the western part.
By 500 B.C. Celtic tribes controlled much of the region. In the 1st century B.C. the Romans took over . They built roads through alpine valleys and across mountain passes to link Rome with its northern provinces. These roads allowed the Romans to expand their influence to other parts of central and western Europe. Throughout the Middle Ages these routes have been used by merchants , religious leaders and soldiers .
During the past two centuries railroads, tunnels and motorways have been built in order to connect the southern part of Europe with the north. There are more than 40 natural passes in the Alps. The Brenner Pass (1374 metres) is the most widely used pass of the eastern Alps. It connects western Austria and northern Italy with a major motorway and a railroad.
Building tunnels under the mountains belongs to the most difficult types of construction work. The St. Gotthard Road Tunnel has a length of 17km and is one of the longest motorway tunnels in the world . It is part of the St. Gotthard road, the most frequently used transit route through the central Alps . The Great St. Bernard tunnel was the first major motorway tunnel to connect Italy and Switzerland. The Mont Blanc road tunnel links France and Italy, and the Arlberg tunnel is the longest in the eastern Alps, connecting the Tyrol with Vorarlberg.
Climbing the Alps
Few people attempted to conquer the Alps in the early centuries . Many alpine peaks were first climbed during the mid 1800s when mountaineering became a popular sport. Today, professional guides use modern equipment to help people reach the highest peaks. Each year more than 2,000 alpinists ascend to the top of the Matterhorn which is considered to be one of the most difficult mountains to climb.
In 1786 two Frenchmen became the first to reach the top of Mt. Blanc, Europe’s highest peak.
In the past two centuries many changes have taken place in the alpine region. Increased industrialisation and tourism have led to air and water pollution, slope erosion and the destruction of forests. Increased trade between European Union countries has led to growing road traffic.
The people of alpine valleys suffer from dust ,dirt and noise produced by traffic . It is one of the big aims of the European Union to get more traffic onto railroads in order to reduce pollution and make the Alps a better place to live and relax.
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Text and Worksheets
- activity =something that you do
- aim = something that you really want to do
- alpinist = person who likes to climb mountains
- antelope = an animal with long horns that can run very fast
- arc = part of a curved line or circle
- ascend =to go up
- attempt = try
- B.C. = Before Christ
- barley =a plant that you use to make food and alcohol
- barren = with nothing on it
- beech =large tree with a smooth grey cover
- blanket = cover, layer
- border = line between two countries
- broad = wide
- burrow = a place under the ground that animals make to live or sleep
- cattle = cows on a farm that produce milk or meat
- century = a hundred years
- common = popular
- connect = link
- conquer =here: climb up to the top of
- consider = think, believe
- consist of = to be made up of
- construction = building
- cover =to form a layer over something
- create = make
- dairy farm = farm that makes and sells milk from its cows
- deciduous = trees that lose their leaves in winter
- develop = grow
- divide = separate
- dominate = here: stand out, overlook
- dust = dirt that is in the form of dry powder
- economic =about the economy
- economy =system of buying and selling things in a country
- either =one of two things
- equipment = tools, machines , clothes that you need to do a job
- expand = to make bigger
- fir =tree with leaves shaped like needles; they do not fall off in winter
- fold = to move one part over another
- frequent = often
- glacier = large mass of ice that moves slowly down a mountain
- graceful = to move in a very nice way
- granite and gneiss = hard rocks that are changed by heat and pressure
- guide = person who leads tourists
- hibernate = to sleep the whole winter
- hydroelectric = to use water power to make electricity
- in general =on the whole
- include =contain, have
- increased = here : more
- influence =power, control
- layer =cover, level
- lead—led = cause
- length =how long something is
- limestone = rock that has calcium in it
- link = connect
- locate = to be found
- location = place, area
- major = very important
- marmot = small animal with fur and short front legs which lives under the ground
- meadow = field with wild grass and flowers
- Mediterranean = area between the southern part of Europe and the northern part of Africa
- melt = here: when snow and ice becomes water
- merchant = person who sells and buys things
- moisture = very, very small drops of water in the air
- moraine = pieces of rock and material that a glacier moves along
- moss = very small green plants that grow in a thick mass on trees or rock
- motorway = a very wide road for travelling fast over long distances
- mountain range = a group of mountains
- mountaineering = the sport of mountain climbing
- movement =when something moves
- numerous = many
- oak =a large tree that is common in northern countries
- oats =grain from which flour is made ; it is used in cooking or as food for animals
- operate = work
- originate = comes from
- pasture = land or field covered with grass that cows or sheep can eat
- peak = the sharp pointed top of a mountain
- peak = the sharp pointed top of a mountain
- pine =a tall tree with long hard sharp leaves that do not fall off in winter
- pollution =when you make air, water or the ground dirty so it is dangerous for people
- popular = liked by a lot of people
- power station = a building where electricity is produced
- pressure =weight, force
- produce = make
- raise = to look after animals or grow plants so that they can be used as food
- range = here: group of mountains
- reach =get to
- reduce = lower
- relax = rest
- resort = place where people go for their holidays
- rise = to go up or get higher
- rye = grain that is used for making dark bread
- sea level = the average height of the sea; it is used to measure how high mountains and other places are
- seabed = land at the bottom of the sea
- section = part
- separate = divide
- shrub = a small bush
- situated = to be in a certain place
- slope = side of a hill or mountain
- soldier = member of an army who fights in a war
- spruce =a tree that grows in northern countries and has short leaves shaped like needles
- stretch = go from one place to another
- sturdy = strong
- suffer =here: to become worse because something bad is happening
- surplus = more than what is needed
- take over = take control of
- throughout = in all of
- throughout = in the whole of ...
- transform = change
- transit = system of moving goods or people from one place to another
- various = different
- widely = here: much, a lot