How the Alps assembled; Mountain building 101 [Switzerland]
Intro: A night train away from Slovenia and we were in Switzerland. We stopped briefly in Zurich (the largest city in Switzerland, located at the edge of Zurich Lake) which allowed me to visit the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), regarded as one of the top universities in the world with over 21 Nobel Prize laureates (such as Albert Einstein!). I was considering studying here in the future so it was an excellent opportunity to check out the university in person.
After that it was off to what Switzerland is known best for, and no, not chocolate or pocket knives, but mountains – the spectacular Swiss Alps!
I wasn’t sure how to I would react when we made our way to south-central Switzerland, near Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen, and the start of the Alps mountain range. Being from British Columbia, Canada, particularly the Whistler/Vancouver area, I’m used to towering, glacier-cap mountains. That being said, my first reaction was how similar it all looked, but then as I truly gawked around more I notice how actually high and vertical the faces of the mountains were, and accompanied with the glowing green grassy hills, they definitely offered a much different feel than Canada.
And the best way to see the mountains? Why, go to the very top! All you have to do is take a train to the “top of Europe” Juangfrau, or you can do what we did and get a more intimate, if a bit sketchy, experience with the rocks and climb up doing a via ferrata (cross between mountain walking and rock climbing).
Science-Spiel: How to build mountains 101 (Geology, Plate Tectonics, and Geomorphology)
The impressive scale of these mountains can be attributed to the same mechanisms that cause earthquakes and tsunamis; plate tectonics.
The Alps are the result of a collision between two tectonic plates, the African and Eurasian plates (where the continents of African and Europe/Asia reside on, but the plates themselves extend past the edge of the landmass and far into the surrounding oceans).
The African plate migrated northward, at speeds probably no more than 10-15cm/year, until it eventually collided with the stable Eurasian plate and swallowed up a former sea separating the two plates, called the Tethys. Over time this constant pressure resulted in rocks being squeezed, folded, and thrusted upward. Thus the final result is spectacular, high standing mountains with bends and folds visible within the rocks. The whole process started about 55 million years ago, so geologically speaking, this is actually quite a young mountain belt.
Like British Columbia, these mountain ranges also experience heavy glaciations. Since about 2.5 million years ago the cyclic glacial periods have lead to these massive ice blocks carving out sharp mountain faces, and rounding valleys, like the classic glacial U-shaped valley of Lauterbrunnen (as opposed to river formed valleys which are more V-shaped).
Why-You-Might-Recognize-It: The Name’s Bond… (James Bond)
From the “top of Europe” claim of Jungfrau to the revolving restaurant on the summit of Schilthorn, I thought these looked like picturesque spots for some secret mountain fortress and kept thinking
“I’m pretty sure a James Bond was filmed here…”
Well it turns out I was right, go figure. This was where On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was set, the 6th James Bond film in the series and only one starring the not so popular George Lazenby. The revolving restaurant at the top of Schilthorn called Piz Gloria in particular was a main location for the film. So yeah, score one for James Bond trivia!
The Alps are one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the world. And like most thing, but especially in this case, it is something you have to see for yourself rather than in a picture to truly get the sense of its awe-inspiring scale. Yes it is very similar to Canada and the coastal belt in BC, but add some rolling green meadows and old Swiss chateaus, and you’ll see how unparalleled the land of the Swiss really is.
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