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The geography of Switzerland and the Swiss Alps

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The genesis of the Alps

The surface of the earth is in motion. Not only volcanic eruptions, but also earthquakes maintain a continuous process of change. Earthquakes are caused by the slow movement of shifting continents: towards each other, away from each other or one over the other. When these tectonic plates move towards each other, the enormous pressure can form new mountain chains.

The history of the Alps started some 500 million years ago. In the then existing Tethyan Sea, the materials the Alps are made of (such as marble, limestone and granite) developed during many millions of years.

The actual mountain-building started a 100 million years ago, when the African tectonic plate started to move towards and cause pressure on the more stable tectonic plates of Europe and Asia. Under the influence of this gigantic pressure the bottom of the sea rose to form new mountains. On a smaller scale, glacial periods and glaciers caused the shaping of the mountains by their eroding influence.

The Alps are still growing

The growth process is still going on. On a geological timescale the Alps are a young mountain range, still developing: the Alps gain about one millimeter (0.04 ") in height every year.

One can recognize a young mountain range by its high and roughly shaped tops. The summits will be subject to wear, caused by erosion, and weathering. Eventually they will round off. As a result of this, the mountains will disappear in the long term.

The Alps were the first mountainous area which was geologically investigated in an extensive way. Many geological terms find their origin in the Alps. Worldwide the name 'Alps' is often used in the nomenclature of other mountain ranges.

The dynamic Alps

Mountains are always in motion. Now too nature causes the Alps to change constantly.

Melting snow forms fast-streaming masses of water by which stones and rock-waste are carried away and rocks slowly are grinded into round shapes. This, for instance, can be seen at the Trümmelbachfälle. Glaciers slowly slide down the mountain slope and grind new valleys. This impressive natural phenomenon can be seen near the Grosser Aletsch glacier.

Avalanches tumble into the valleys, as well as rockfalls. This cannot always be predicted, so it unfortunately takes casualties regularly.

Heavy weather can instantly transform quiet brooklets into fierce rivers, even on days that start with nice summer weather. This happened in the Bernese Oberland on July 27, 1999, where 21 tourists died in the Saxet Bach, while canyoning down the river. Heavy rains occurred in Switzerland and surrounding countries in August 2005, causing several casualties. The central and eastern part of the country suffered from floodings and landslides. Residential areas flooded and roads and railroads needed to close due to damaged bridges. Many people were evacuated. Trouble was not limited to deserted areas. Parts of Bern and Interlaken flooded as well. The Lower Engadine in Graubünden and tourist resorts such as Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen and Engelberg were cut off from the outside world. Buildings collapsed in Brienz in the Bernese Oberland. Floodings in Switzerland and surrounding countries occurred in the summer of 2021 as well.

These kind of events show that it is mandatory to take caution in the mountains. But this should be no reason not to come and explore the Swiss Alps and enjoy the impressive scenery. Accidents are rare and often due to imprudence.

On top of that, the Swiss are very alert for possible danger. The Swiss Alps are actually one of the safest mountainous areas in the world. Just be prepared and you'll be fine.

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