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Located at the crossroads between powerful states, the Alps have played a crucial role in the formation of European history, a place of intense cultural fusion as well as fierce conflict between warring nations. A diverse range of flora and fauna have made themselves at home in this harsh environment, which today welcomes over million tourists a year.

Leading Alpine scholar Jon Mathieu tells the story of the people who have lived in and been inspired by these mountains and valleys, from the ancient peasants of the Neolithic to the cyclists of the Tour de France.

Far from being a remote and backward corner of Europe, the Alps are shown by Mathieu to have been a crucible of new ideas and technologies at the heart of the European story. In a career spanning thirty years, Mathieu has written seven books that have been translated into multiple languages. It introduces us to cultural and ecological challenges. A book full of surprises and insights and wonderful illustrations.

In this Book

Weaver, University of Rochester. Undetected location. Numerous weather stations were placed in the mountains early in the early 20th century, providing continuous data for climatologists. The areas that are not arid and receive high precipitation experience periodic flooding from rapid snowmelt and runoff. High-water levels in streams and rivers peak in June and July when the snow is still melting at the higher altitudes.

The Alps are split into five climatic zones, each with different vegetation. The climate, plant life and animal life vary among the different sections or zones of the mountains.


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The Alpine zone, extending from tree line to snow line, is followed by the glacial zone, which covers the glaciated areas of the mountain. Climatic conditions show variances within the same zones; for example, weather conditions at the head of a mountain valley, extending directly from the peaks, are colder and more severe than those at the mouth of a valley which tend to be less severe and receive less snowfall.

Various models of climate change have been projected into the 22nd century for the Alps, with an expectation that a trend toward increased temperatures will have an effect on snowfall, snowpack, glaciation, and river runoff. Thirteen thousand species of plants have been identified in the Alpine regions. The habitats range from meadows, bogs, woodland deciduous and coniferous areas to soil-less scree and moraines , and rock faces and ridges. 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.

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. 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.

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Lawrence described them as "darkening the day-time, torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom. On the highest rocky ledges the spring flowers bloom in the summer. At these higher altitudes, the plants tend to form isolated cushions. 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. 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, 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 ibex live in caves and descend to eat the succulent alpine grasses. In Switzerland the canton of Bern was named for the bears but the last bear is recorded as having been killed in above Kleine Scheidegg by three hunters from Grindelwald. Many rodents such as voles live underground.

They hibernate in large groups to provide warmth, [82] and can be found in all areas of the Alps, in large colonies they build beneath the alpine pastures. 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.

Brown trout can be found in the streams up to the snow line. Popularly gathered as food, the snails are now protected. 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. 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.

The Alps as region of Europe

In Emosson in Valais, Switzerland, dinosaur tracks were found in the s, dating probably from the Triassic Period. About 10, years ago, when the ice melted after the last glacial period , late Palaeolithic communities were established along the lake shores and in cave systems.

Evidence of human habitation has been found in caves near Vercors , close to Grenoble; in Austria the Mondsee culture shows evidence of houses built on piles to keep them dry. Standing stones have been found in Alpine areas of France and Italy. The rock drawings in Valcamonica are more than years old; more than , drawings and etchings have been identified at the site.

Alps Nature History

His clothing and gear indicate that he lived in an alpine farming community, while the location and manner of his death — an arrowhead was discovered in his shoulder — suggests he was travelling from one place to another. Celtic tribes settled in Switzerland between and BC. Among the many substances Celtic tribes mined was salt in areas such as Salzburg in Austria where evidence of the Hallstatt culture was found by a mine manager in the 19th century.

During the Second Punic War in BC, the Carthaginian general Hannibal probably crossed the Alps with an army numbering 38, infantry, 8, cavalry, and 37 war elephants.

This was one of the most celebrated achievements of any military force in ancient warfare, [95] although no evidence exists of the actual crossing or the place of crossing. The Romans, however, had built roads along the mountain passes, which continued to be used through the medieval period to cross the mountains and Roman road markers can still be found on the mountain passes. The Rhaetians continued to resist but were eventually conquered when the Romans turned northward to the Danube valley in Austria and defeated the Brigantes.

Christianity was established in the region by the Romans, and saw the establishment of monasteries and churches in the high regions. The Frankish expansion of the Carolingian Empire and the Bavarian expansion in the eastern Alps introduced feudalism and the building of castles to support the growing number of dukedoms and kingdoms. Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento , Italy, still has intricate frescoes, excellent examples of Gothic art, in a tower room.

Much of the medieval period was a time of power struggles between competing dynasties such as the House of Savoy , the Visconti in northern Italy and the House of Habsburg in Austria and Slovenia. After a series of battles fought in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, more cantons joined the confederacy and by the 16th century Switzerland was well-established as a separate state. During the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18th century and early 19th century, Napoleon annexed territory formerly controlled by the Habsburgs and Savoys.

In he established the Helvetic Republic in Switzerland; two years later he led an army across the St. Bernard pass and conquered almost all of the Alpine regions. Thus, Savoy built a series of fortifications in the Maurienne valley in order to protect the major alpine passes, such as the col du Mont-Cenis that was even crossed by Charlemagne and his father to defeat the Lombards.

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In the 19th century, the monasteries built in the high Alps during the medieval period to shelter travellers and as places of pilgrimage, became tourist destinations. The Benedictines had built monasteries in Lucerne , Switzerland, and Oberammergau ; the Cistercians in the Tyrol and at Lake Constance ; and the Augustinians had abbeys in the Savoy and one in the centre of Interlaken , Switzerland. Radiocarbon -dated charcoal placed around 50, years ago was found in the Drachloch Dragon's Hole cave above the village of Vattis in the canton of St.


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Gallen , proving that the high peaks were visited by prehistoric people. Seven bear skulls from the cave may have been buried by the same prehistoric people. The knight reached the summit of Rocciamelone where he left a bronze triptych of three crosses, a feat which he conducted with the use of ladders to traverse the ice.

From his description of a "blue like that of a gentian" sky it is thought that he reached a significantly high altitude. Conrad Gessner was the first naturalist to ascend the mountains in the 16th century, to study them, writing that in the mountains he found the "theatre of the Lord".

Zillertal Alps Nature Park

Albrecht von Haller 's poem Die Alpen described the mountains as an area of mythical purity. Schiller later wrote the play William Tell , which tells the story the legendary Swiss marksman William Tell as part of the greater Swiss struggle for independence from the Habsburg Empire in the early 14th century. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars , the Alpine countries began to see an influx of poets, artists, and musicians, [] as visitors came to experience the sublime effects of monumental nature.

In Byron , Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley visited Geneva and all three were inspired by the scenery in their writings. When Coleridge travelled to Chamonix , he declaimed, in defiance of Shelley, who had signed himself "Atheos" in the guestbook of the Hotel de Londres near Montenvers, [] "Who would be, who could be an atheist in this valley of wonders". By the midth century scientists began to arrive en masse to study the geology and ecology of the region. Austrian-born Adolf Hitler had a lifelong romantic fascination with the Alps and by the s established a home at Berghof , in the Obersalzberg region outside of Berchtesgaden.

His first visit to the area was in and he maintained a strong tie there until the end of his life. By many of the Alpine countries were under the control of the Axis powers.