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How the Alps assembled; Mountain building 101 [Switzerland]

U-shaped Valley, Lauterbrunnen, Glacier, Processes, Carving, Formation, Switzerland, Geology, example, Travel, Adventure, Earth Science, Photography, Instagram, CollageIntro: 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.

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Map of journey through Switzerland

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!

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Myself on top of the Switzerland Alps, Near Jungfrau Lauterbrunnen

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.

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The Alps Mountain Range in Switzerland, near Interlaken

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).

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Nadine doing a via ferrata in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

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).

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Tectonic Plates of Earth (USGS 2013)

Plate Tectonics Europe Collision Africa Switzerland Alps Formation

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.

Switzerland Europe Alps Jungfrau Lauterbrunnen Swiss Travel Adventure Mountains Glacier Rock Climbing Via Ferrata Snow Geology Formation Plate Tectonics Photography Folds Compression Layers Layered Limestone

Layered Limestone Rocks of Swiss Alps at Jungfrau, Switzerland

Switzerland Europe Alps Jungfrau Lauterbrunnen Swiss Travel Adventure Mountains Glacier Rock Climbing Via Ferrata Snow Geology Formation Plate Tectonics Photography Folds Compression Layers Layered Limestone

Layers and layers of rocks compressed and folded onto of the Swiss Alps, at Jungfrau, Switzerland

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).

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V-shaped valley (left) formed by rivers, and U-shaped valleys (middle and right) formed by glaciers

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Classic U-Shaped Valley of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

Why-You-Might-Recognize-It: The Name’s Bond… (James Bond)

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Switzerland’s Schilthorn was the location of the 6th James Bond 007 Movie

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!

Final Thoughts:

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.

-Stephanie

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Myself in the Classic U-Shaped Valley of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

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12 Comments

  1. I do not know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everybody else encountering problems with your blog.
    It appears like some of the text within your posts are running off the screen.
    Can somebody else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them as
    well? This may be a issue with my internet browser because I’ve had this happen before.
    Thank you

  2. AHoffman

    Do you know why the beautiful lakes in Interlaken are Emerald green? I have dessert wagered on this so any insight you can provide is appreciated. Thanks!

    • My best guess to why the Interlaken lakes are that brilliant Emerald green is due to their glacial environment. Because the sources to these are from the surrounding mountains and glacier run-off, this water would contain a high about of suspended sediments and silica. These small particles scatter light within the water column. As the light continues to move through the water it is also absorb and scatter by water molecules. So the more suspended particles, the higher the ratio of light is scattered backwards toward our eyes. Shorter wavelength of light (e.g.blue, green) are more preferentially scatter, so that is why we see a blue tight, and even green tint, to glacial lakes.

      • If you want to read more, check out this journal paper on it:

        Aas, E., and Bogen, J., 1988, Colors of glacier water: Water Resources Research, v. 24, no. 4, p. 561-565

        Hope that helps you win some dessert, cheers!

  3. Pingback: Visiting CERN; a Geologist’s Attempt at Particle Physics and the Higgs Boson [Switzerland] | Exploring the Earth

  4. I totally agree. The first time I saw them it was amazing how steep they were, and also how people had built their lives in and around them. Now to visit the eastern parts of the range!

    • Yes, would love to check out the eastern part of the range and more of the Alps next time I get the chance 🙂 Where did you go when you saw them?

    • I didn’t know about that, will have to check it out next time I’m around there!