The Alps are the highest and most extensive mountain range system that lies entirely in Europe, stretching approximately 750 mi across eight Alpine countries : France, Switzerland, Monaco, Italy, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia.
The Alpine arch generally extends from Nice on the western Mediterranean to Trieste on the Adriatic and Vienna at the beginning of the Pannonian Basin. The mountains were formed over tens of millions of years as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided. Extreme shortening caused by the event resulted in marine sedimentary rocks rising by thrusting and folding into high mountain peaks such as Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.
Mont Blanc spans the French–Italian border, and at 4,809 m (15,778 ft) is the highest mountain in the Alps. The Alpine region area contains 128 peaks higher than 4,000 m (13,000 ft).
The altitude and size of the range affect 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 Palaeolithic 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 famously 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.
The Alpine region has a strong cultural identity. The traditional culture of farming, cheesemaking, and woodworking still exists in Alpine villages, although the tourist industry began to grow early in the 20th century and expanded greatly after World War II to become the dominant industry by the end of the century.
The Winter Olympic Games have been hosted in the Swiss, French, Italian, Austrian and German Alps. At present, the region is home to 14 million people and has 120 million annual visitors.
Thirteen thousand species of plants have been identified in the Alpine regions. Alpine plants are grouped by habitat and soil type which can be limestone or non-calcareous. The habitats range from meadows, bogs, woodland (deciduous and coniferous) areas to soil-less scree and moraines, and rock faces and ridges. 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 presence of wild herbaceous vegetation. This limit usually lies about 1,200 m (3,900 ft) above the sea on the north side of the Alps, but on the southern slopes it often rises to 1,500 m (4,900 ft), sometimes even to 1,700 m (5,600 ft).
Above the forestry, there is often a band of short pine trees (Pinus mugo), which is in turn superseded by Alpenrosen, dwarf shrubs, typically Rhododendron ferrugineum (on acid soils) or Rhododendron hirsutum (on alkaline soils). Although the Alpenrose prefers acidic soil, the plants are found throughout the region. Above the tree line is the area defined as "alpine" where in the alpine meadow plants are found that have adapted well to harsh conditions of cold temperatures, aridity, and high altitudes. The alpine area fluctuates greatly because of regional fluctuations in tree lines.
Alpine plants such as the Alpine gentian grow in abundance in areas such as the meadows above the Lauterbrunnental. Gentians are named after the Illyrian king Gentius, and 40 species of the early-spring blooming flower grow in the Alps, in a range of 1,500 to 2,400 m (4,900 to 7,900 ft). Writing about the gentians in Switzerland D. H. Lawrence described them as "darkening the day-time, torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom." Gentians tend to "appear" repeatedly as the spring blooming takes place at progressively later dates, moving from the lower altitude to the higher altitude meadows where the snow melts much later than in the valleys. On the highest rocky ledges the spring flowers bloom in the summer.
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 (13,000 ft), including Ranunculus glacialis, Androsace alpina and Saxifraga biflora. Eritrichium nanum, commonly known as the King of the Alps, is the most elusive of the alpine flowers, growing on rocky ridges at 2,600 to 3,750 m (8,530 to 12,300 ft). Perhaps the best known of the alpine plants is Edelweiss which grows in rocky areas and can be found at altitudes as low as 1,200 m (3,900 ft) and as high as 3,400 m (11,200 ft). The plants that grow at the highest altitudes have adapted to conditions by specialization such as growing in rock screes that give protection from winds.
The extreme and stressful climatic conditions give way to the growth of plant species with secondary metabolites important for medicinal purposes. Origanum vulgare, Prunella vulgaris, Solanum nigrum and Urtica dioica are some of the more useful medicinal species found in the Alps.
Human interference has nearly exterminated the trees in many areas, and, except for the beech forests of the Austrian Alps, forests of deciduous trees are rarely found after the extreme deforestation between the 17th and 19th centuries. The vegetation has changed since the second half of the 20th century, as the high alpine meadows cease to be harvested for hay or used for grazing which eventually might result in a regrowth of forest. In some areas, the modern practice of building ski runs by mechanical means has destroyed the underlying tundra from which the plant life cannot recover during the non-skiing months, whereas areas that still practice a natural piste type of ski slope building preserve the fragile underlayers.
The Alps are a habitat for 30,000 species of wildlife, ranging from the tiniest snow fleas to brown bears, many of which have made adaptations to the harsh cold conditions and high altitudes to the point that some only survive in specific micro-climates either directly above or below the snow line.
The largest mammal to live in the highest altitudes are the alpine ibex, which have been sighted as high as 3,000 m (9,800 ft). The ibex live in caves and descend to eat the succulent alpine grasses. Classified as antelopes, chamois are smaller than ibex and found throughout the Alps, living above the tree line and are common in the entire alpine range. Areas of the eastern Alps are still home to brown bears. In Switzerland the canton of Bern was named for the bears but the last bear is recorded as having been killed in 1792 above Kleine Scheidegg by three hunters from Grindelwald.
Many rodents such as voles live underground. Marmots live almost exclusively above the tree line as high as 2,700 m (8,900 ft). They hibernate in large groups to provide warmth, and can be found in all areas of the Alps, in large colonies they build beneath the alpine pastures. Golden eagles and bearded vultures are the largest birds to be found in the Alps; they nest high on rocky ledges and can be found at altitudes of 2,400 m (7,900 ft). The most common bird is the alpine chough which can be found scavenging at climber's huts or at the Jungfraujoch, a high altitude tourist destination.
Reptiles such as adders and vipers live up to the snow line; because they cannot bear the cold temperatures they hibernate underground and soak up the warmth on rocky ledges. The high-altitude Alpine salamanders have adapted to living above the snow line by giving birth to fully developed young rather than laying eggs. Brown trout can be found in the streams up to the snow line. Molluscs such as the wood snail live up the snow line. Popularly gathered as food, the snails are now protected.
A number of species of moths live in the Alps, some of which are believed to have evolved in the same habitat up to 120 million years ago, long before the Alps were created. Blue butterflies can commonly be seen drinking from the snowmelt; some species of blues fly as high as 1,800 m (5,900 ft). The butterflies tend to be large, such as those from the swallowtail Parnassius family, with a habitat that ranges to 1,800 m (5,900 ft). Twelve species of beetles have habitats up to the snow line; the most beautiful and formerly collected for its colours but now protected is Rosalia alpina. Spiders, such as the large wolf spider, live above the snow line and can be seen as high as 400 m (1,300 ft). Scorpions can be found in the Italian Alps.
Some of the species of moths and insects show evidence of having been indigenous to the area from as long ago as the Alpine orogeny. In Emosson in Valais, Switzerland, dinosaur tracks were found in the 1970s, dating probably from the Triassic Period.