Official name: Swiss Confederation
Area: 41,290 square kilometers (15,942 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Dufourspitze (4,634 meters/15,203 feet)
Lowest point on land: Lake Maggiore (195 meters/640 feet)
Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 1 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 348 kilometers (216 miles) from east to west; 220 kilometers (137 miles) from north to south
Land boundaries: 1,852 kilometers (1,151 miles) total boundary length; Austria 164 kilometers (102 miles); France 573 kilometers (356 miles); Italy 740 kilometers (460 miles); Liechtenstein 41 kilometers (25 miles); Germany 334 kilometers (208 miles)
Territorial sea limits: None
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
Switzerland is a small, mountainous, land-locked country in Central Europe, famous for its picturesque Alpine vistas. With an area of 41,290 square kilometers (15,942 square miles), it is slightly more than twice as large as the state of New Jersey. Switzerland is a federation of twenty-six highly autonomous and culturally distinct cantons. This structure has been influenced by the geography of the country, with villages and cantons cut off from one another by high mountains or deep valleys.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Switzerland has no territories or dependencies.
Switzerland is in a climatic transitional zone, subject to Atlantic, Arctic, continental, and Mediterranean influences. In addition, there is considerable variation due to differences in altitude. The Mittelland has warm, pleasant summer temperatures between 18°C and 21°C (65°F and 70°F), while temperatures in the mountains are cooler at high elevations but hotter in the valleys. In autumn and winter, fog is common at lower elevations, while the higher altitudes enjoy dry, sunny weather. The average annual temperature in the country is 9°C (48°F). The canton of Ticino, located south of the Alps, has a Mediterranean climate. Winter lows can fall below 0°C (32°F) in any part of the country, however. The Foehn, described as the "Sahara Air," is a warm wind that blows through the Alpine valleys to the central lowlands, most often in the spring.
Rainfall increases with altitude, ranging from 53 centimeters (21 inches) in the Rhone Valley to 170 centimeters (67 inches) in the city of Lugano, located at the southern tip of Switzerland. Areas that are located near each other but have sharply contrasting elevations can also have sharp differences in rainfall. The higher the elevation, the greater percentage of the total precipitation falls in the form of snow. At Alpine elevations of greater than 3,505 meters (11,500 feet), all precipitation falls as snow.
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
Switzerland has three distinct geographical regions: the various branches of the Alps extending over the southern part of the country (60 percent of the country's total territory); the Jura Mountains in the northwest (10 percent of the total area); and the Mittelland in between (the remaining 30 percent).
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Switzerland is landlocked.
6 INLAND LAKES
Lakes are a striking feature of the Swiss landscape: no part of the country is farther than 15 kilometers (9 miles) from a lake. A series of picturesque lakes stretches across the northern half of the country at the edges of the Mittel-land and the subalpine region. With an area of 581 square kilometers (224 square miles), Lake Geneva is Switzerland's largest lake, while Lake Neuchâtel, with an area of 215 square kilometers (83 square miles), is the largest entirely within Swiss borders. At the far end of the Mittelland, on the German border, is Lake Constance, which is Switzerland's second-largest lake at 540 square kilometers (208 square miles).
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
Two of Europe's major rivers, the Rhone and the Rhine, rise in the Swiss Alps, within 32 kilometers (20 miles) of each other. The Rhone, which originates from the Rhone Glacier in the Alps near Lake Geneva, is a mostly mountainous river that cuts through numerous valleys. The Rhine is one of the most important waterways in continental Europe. Its headwaters are in the Swiss Alps (at the confluence of the Upper Rhine and Lower Rhine Rivers) from which it flows 1,391 kilometers (865 miles) to the North Sea. Of Switzerland's rivers, the Rhine has both the greatest total length as well as the greatest length within Swiss borders (375 kilometers/233 miles). Other important rivers rise in the central Alps, including the Inn, the Maggia, the Ticino, and the Aare. The Aare is the largest river entirely within Switzerland. Other rivers that help drain the Mittelland are the Sarine, the Emme, and the Reuss.
There are no deserts in Switzerland.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
The topography of the Mittelland, Switzer-land's central plateau, includes slightly rolling hills, meadowlands, and winding valleys.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
The Alps, the largest chain of mountains in Europe, cover three-fifths of Switzerland. The Swiss Alps are divided into different groups lengthwise by the Rhone and Rhine River Valleys and crosswise by the Reuss and Ticino River Valleys. The main subdivisions are the Bernese Alps and Pennine Alps in the west, the Lepontine Alps in the center, and the Glarus Alps and Rhaetian Alps in the east. Their mean altitude is around 1,700 meters (5,577 feet), but one hundred summits exceed 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). The Dufourspitze on the Monte Rosa Massif is Switzerland's highest peak at 4,634 meters (15,203 feet); the Matterhorn, the most famous Swiss peak, has an elevation of 4,478 meters (14,691 feet). The Alps contain more than one thousand glaciers, covering some 3,000 square kilometers (1,158 square miles). The largest is the Aletsch Glacier, which is 24 kilometers (15 miles) long. The Alps also experience about ten thousand avalanches per year. The subalpine region on the northwest fringe of the Alps has a less complex structure than the main range. Many of its peaks reach heights of about 2,000 meters (6,562 feet).
The Jura Mountains stretch across the northwestern part of the country, from Geneva in the west to Schaffhausen and into western France. They form 257 kilometers (160 miles) of the Swiss/French border. These mountains are much lower than the Alps. Their mean altitude is 700 meters (2,296 feet), but they include some peaks that rise to around 1,600 meters (5,249 feet); the highest peak in the Swiss Jura is Mount Tendre, which reaches 1,679 meters (5,508 feet).
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
Switzerland has more than fifty named caves. At 165 kilometers (103 miles) in length, the Hölloch Cave system near Muotatal, in the canton of Schwyz, is the largest in Europe and the fourth-largest cavern in the world.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
At a mean altitude of 580 meters (1,903 feet), the Mittelland, or Central Plateau, stretches from Lake Geneva to Lake Constance. This fertile region is the country's agricultural heartland and home to most of its population. Erosion has also created plateaus within the Jura Mountains, of which the most extensive is the Franches-Montagnes Plateau, which lies to the east of the border with France.
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
The Ganter Bridge at the Simplon Pass in Valais has the longest span of any bridge in Switzerland. It has a tower that is 150 meters (492 feet) high, and its main span is 174 meters (571 feet) long. The Albigna and Emosson Dams are among the most imposing in the country.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Jurassic Period was named for the Jura Mountains, whose many fossils date to that geological era.
14 FURTHER READING
Lambert, Anthony J. Switzerland: Rail, Road, Lake: The Bradt Travel Guide. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2000.
Renouf, Norman. Daytrips Switzerland: 45 One Day Adventures by Rail, Car, Bus, Ferry or Cable Car. Norwalk, CT: Hastings House, 1999.
Steinberg, Jonathan. Why Switzerland? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Lonely Planet: Destination Switzerland. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/Europe/Switzerland/ (accessed May 7, 2003).
TRAMsoft Ambühler & Müller: Information about Switzerland. http://www.about.ch/ (accessed May 7, 2003).