Physical Features of Austria
Austria is a federal republic of central Europe. Österreich is the German form of the name. The Austrian republic was established in 1919, following the end of World War I and the breakup of Austria-Hungary. The corner of Austria north of the Danube River, where the country borders on Germany and the Czech and Slovak republics, includes a part of the Bohemian Massif. This is characterized by its undulating hills, occasional rocky crags, and thick woods, especially in the so-called Waldviertel area in the province of Lower Austria.
In some places the massif extends south of the Danube and accounts, for example, for the Gorge of Grein and the Gorge of Wachau in Lower Austria. In general, however, the massif gives way on the south to the long valley of the Danube; the valley extends for 217 miles (349 km) from west to east. Relatively narrow in the west, this valley broadens out as it nears Vienna and merges into the Great Hungarian Plain.
To the south of the Danube Valley rise the Eastern Alps, which dominate Austria. These can be divided roughly into three longitudinal ranges. The Northern Limestone Alps are made up of numerous minor groups such as the Tuxer Gebirge, the Kitzbühel Alps, and the Eizenerz Alps; separating this range from the Central Alps is a series of valleys.
The valleys stretch from the Arlberg Pass in the west, along the upper waters of the Inn, Salzach, Enns, Mur, and Mürz rivers, to the Semmering Pass in the east. As the first three rivers bend north to find their way to the Danube, and the last two find their way south to the Drave (German, Drau), they provide important north-south passes through the mountains. These and lesser passes make Austria one of the most accessible of mountainous countries.
The second great longitudinal range is formed by the Central Alps. These are, from west to east, the Rhätikon, Silvretta, Ötztal, and Stubai Alps, which run along the Austrian-Swiss-Italian border west of the Brenner Pass; and farther east, the Zillertal Alps, the Hohe Tauern, the Niedere Tauern, and the extensions of the Gurktal and lesser chains leading into Slovenia. The Hohe Tauern contain Austria's highest peak, the Grossglockner (12,461 feet; 3,798 meters). The Grossglockner alpine highway, completed in 1935 and subsequently widened, is more than 35 miles (55 km) in length; it rises to a height of more than 8,200 feet (2,500 meters) above sea level. This road has become one of the most popular scenic mountain highways in the world.
The Southern Alps are most clearly marked off from the Central Alps in the easterly reaches. The most important ranges are the Carnic Alps and the Karawanken, which run along the border between Austria's southernmost province of Carinthia and Italy and Slovenia. Within the Southern Alps lies the Klagenfurt Basin, with its beautiful lake, the Wörthersee. The mountains taper off to foothills in the east. There is a continuous belt of land from west of the Mur River around the whole eastern end of Austria to north of the Danube; at that point the Danube is less than 1,650 feet (500 meters) above sea level.
The mountainous terrain that predominates in most of Austria accounts for a varied climate. There is ample precipitation in all sections, the average annual rainfall measuring between 40 and 50 inches (102–127 cm).
The seasons are for the most part clearly defined. Winter in the mountain sections is often very severe, with deep snow and high winds. The cold is at times moderated by a warm, dry south wind -the Föhn- that prevails when a low-pressure area passes north of the Alps. Its effects are felt particularly in the Inn River valley of Tyrol. The Föhn helps to melt the snow, but at times it produces an extremely uncomfortable cold fog.
The lowlands of eastern Austria are under continental climatic influences. Vienna has a moderate climate with an average temperature just under 50° F (10° C). The days are short in winter and largely overcast. Spring and fall in Austria usually are mild, while the summers are short and moderate.
Considering Austria as a whole, more than one-third of its land area is forest, of which approximately 84% is coniferous, mainly spruce. The remainder is predominantly beech, with considerable oak in the eastern lowlands. Arable land constitutes some 20% of the total area, with an additional 1% devoted to gardens and vineyards. Meadow and pastureland compose 29% of the area, while 13% is uncultivable.