The Alps

Tennen mountains with Hohe Tauern in the background. Salzkammergut, Salzburg, Austria. rel=
Tennen mountains with Hohe Tauern in the background. Salzkammergut, Salzburg, Austria.
© WWF-Canon / Anton VORAUER

The lungs of Europe

What and where
The Alps are one of the largest and highest mountain ranges in the world, forming an arc of 1,200 km in length from Nice to Vienna and covering about 192,000 km².

The mountain range stretches across 8 different countries: France, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria and Slovenia.

The Alps emerged during the Alpine orogeny, an event that began about 70 million years ago as the Mesozoic era was drawing to a close. The location of the Alps, as well as the great variations in their elevations and exposure, give rise to extreme differences in climate, not only among separate ranges but also within a particular range itself. The Alps are the highest and most densely settled mountain belt of Europe, inhabited by some 20 million people.

The valleys of the Alps are areas of year-round settlement; the flatter upland tracts comprise pastures and seasonally inhabited settlements, and the zone above the timberline serves as pasture and for recreation. Important economic activities include tourism, dairy farming, forestry, the production of hydroelectric power, and the extraction of salt and iron ore. With its important pass routes between central and southern Europe, the Alps have been an area of transit trade since ancient times.

Why
The highest peak of the Alps, Mont Blanc (4807 m/15,771 ft), is on the Franco-Italian border. Among the principal ranges are the Maritime, Ligurian, Cottian, and Alpes Grées in France and Italy and the Bernese, Glarus, and Pennine (or Valais) Alps in Switzerland.

About 2% of the total area of the Alps is covered by ice. The longest valley glacier, the Aletsch Glacier in the Bernese Alps, is 18 km long. The Alps region has many lakes, the 2 largest being Lake Geneva and Bodensee (Lake of Constance).

Brenner Pass, at 1,371 m (4,497 ft), and Reschen Pass, at 1508 m (4948 ft), provide the easiest crossings. Engineering feats, such as tunneling of the higher passes for highways and railroads, have lessened the barrier effect of the Alps.

Above 1,800 m (about 5,900 ft) in the Alps, is the treeless zone, a realm of Alpine tundra and flora that extends to the permanent snow line and includes rhododendron, edelweiss, rock flora, sedges, rowan, creeping pine, and dwarf shrubs.

This is a strikingly colorful zone during the 3-4 month summer growing season. Alpine fauna occupies the solitary heights below the snow line. The dominant species are the ibex, chamois, woodchuck, snow grouse, snow mouse, and Alpine daw.

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