Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn, Switzerland

August 21, 2012, 12:49 pm
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The Bernese Alps (46°30'N, 8°02'E), a World Heritage Site, are the most extensively glaciated mountains in Switzerland. They contain Europe's largest glacier, the Aletsch, a great variety of glacial features and an outstanding record of the uplift and compression that formed the High Alps. Climate change is illustrated by the varying rates of retreat of several glaciers which provide substrates for notable examples of ecological succession. There is a wide range of Alpine and sub-Alpine habitats and their spectacular north wall has historically been important in European literature, art, mountaineering and alpine tourism.

Geographical Location

caption Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn, Switzerland. (Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration)


The site is located in the Bernese Alps in south-western Switzerland, on the border between the French and German-speaking Cantons of Valais and Berne, about 25 kilometers(km) south of Interlaken and 20 km north of Brig. It covers wide mountain and glacial areas around the Bietschhorn, Aletschhorn, Jungfrau and Finsteraarhorn peaks. The center of the site, Konkordiaplatz, is at 46°30'N and 8°02'E.

Date and History Of Establishment

  • 1933: Valais Canton assumed responsibility for protection of the Aletsch forest; and in 1938 for protection of the Märjelen, both on the Rhone valley slopes;
  • 1960: Berne Canton assumed management for the Hinteres Lauterbrunnental nature protection zone, which is also partially covered by the Breithorn cantonal game reserve under the Cantonal Ordonnance du 5 Août 1992 sur les districts francs et les régions protégées;
  • 1983: The site was first included on the Federal Inventory of Landscapes, Sites and Natural Monuments of National Importance (Inventaire Fédéral des Paysages, Sites et Monuments Naturels d'Importance Nationale); the area was revised in 1998;
  • 1986: The protection of Baltschiedertal was defined by a contract signed between the communities of Baltschieder, Eggerberg and Mund, the Swiss Foundation for Landscape Conservation & Protection and Pro Natura Valais. This states that the area should be kept in the same condition as it was in 1986; in 1994 the Ausserberg community joined the scheme;


53,934 hectares (ha). 77% of the area (41,476 ha) is within the Canton of Valais and 23% (12,458 ha) is within the Canton of Berne to its north.

Land Tenure

State and private ownership. Approximately thirty percent of the site is owned by the community of Fieschertal. Much of the remainder of the property is owned by local villages and their associated authorities (pouvoirs publics). There are also several private landowners, mostly on the edge of the site. The largest private owner (500 ha) is the nature protection organization Pro Natura at Alpes Understeinberg and Breitlauenen in the Hinteres Lauterbrunnental.


Ranges from 900 meters (m) to 4,274 m (Finsteraarhorn). Over 50% of the property is above 2,800 m. Nine of the main summits located in the World Heritage site are over 4,000 m; their average height is 4,108 m.

Physical Features

The site is the crest of a wall of high mountains covered by glaciers. The summit ridge is one of the great watersheds of Europe with many peaks above 4,000 m: Jungfrau, Mönch, Aletschhorn, Fiescherhorner, Grünhorn and Finsteraarhorn. The steep north side is in the catchment of the Aar, a sub-basin of the Rhine which runs into the North Sea. The gentler south-facing slopes drain into the Rhône which feeds into the Mediterranean.

The landscape of the upper slopes is dominated by glacial processes and classic examples of glacier-formed u-shaped valleys such as the Lauterbrunnental, are evident throughout. Below the u-shaped glaciated valleys, the landscape is shaped by rivers. The principal valleys on the northern side of the area run north-south. The breach made by the Lötschental-Lötschenlücke-Grosser Aletschfirn-Grünhornlücke, runs east-west to which valleys currently covered by ice from the Aletsch and Fiesch glaciers run at right angles. There is a wide range of glacial phenomena and structures: valley, mountain and cirque glaciers, ribs and crevasses and glacial depositional features such as moraines and glacier forelands. The Aletsch Glacier is the longest and largest glacier in Europe, the ice of which is 900 m thick at Konkordiaplatz. The Fiesch Glacier is the second longest and third largest glacier in Europe. The length of the glaciers was first measured in 1881 on the Lower Grindelwald glacier and 1892 on the Aletsch and Fiesch glaciers. Some glacial tongues descend relatively low, and those of Aletsch and Grindelwald advanced lower than any other glacier in the Alps. Moraines deposited as a result of this movement, show that the Aletsch glacier has been retreating since 1850.

The geomorphology of the area reflects its geological constitution, in particular its petrography and tectonic structure. It is dominated by the crystalline Aar Massif and extends as far as the Helvetic nappe system in the Wengernalp region. The massif is the largest Swiss autochthonic crystalline entity. It is made up of two units: old metamorphic rocks formed during the Caledonian orogenesis, 400-450 million years old and granitic intrusions formed during the Hercynian orogenesis, 300-350 million years ago. The dominant rock types include old crystalline metamorphic]rocks, granite and calcareous sediments, the latter being found only around the massif. Gneiss and schists containing relatively uniform micas, with important amphibolite inclusions, are the dominant metamorphic rocks. These rocks form the peaks above 4,000 m. The summits of Grünhorn and Finsteraarhorn are composed of green amphibolite, a very hard rock. Aletschhorn is unique in being covered by a cap of gneiss, a relic of the old crystalline block. The Central Aar granite is the largest granitic massif in the country, comprising the Bietschhorn, Nesthorn, Lötschentaler Breithorn, Schinhorn and Fusshörn. It is 100 kilometres (km) long, nine km wide with an area of 500 square kilometers.

During the Mezozoic period, the Aar Massif was covered by a tropical sea for approximately 200 million years. Sediments formed a thick horizontal layer of rock above the crystalline complex, measuring several kilometers in depth. During the formation of the Alps, during the Tertiary Period 20-40 million years ago, it was subjected to severe compression, uplift and metamorphism, although there was no dislocation. The distribution of the Mezozoic rocks around the massif illustrates the deformations to the massif caused by the formation of the Alps. The compression and the uplift are demonstrated by the tilting of some of these layers towards the Rhone valley, along the Lötschberg south ramp, as well as by the almost vertical distribution of sediments in the Eiger-Wetterhorn-Grosse Scheidegg region. Most of this sediment cover slipped to the north during the formation of the Alps, leaving the Helvetian nappe exposed. In the process, a few 'scales' of the old crystalline formation were dragged by the nappes into the most northern part of the massif. These relics can now be seen at the summit of Jungfrau and Mönch above the limestone rocks. The relief of the range is rugged, which is characteristic of young mountains.


The climate of the site is strongly influenced by the prevailing western wind and the distribution and height of the mountains. Overall the area receives a mean annual rainfall of 1,490 millimeters (mm). However, annual precipitation is extremely variable throughout the site, being greater on the Bernese slopes which have a sub-oceanic climate, than on the south-facing Valais side which is sheltered by the Bernese and Pennine Alps. The Valais region experiences a subcontinental climate at low and medium altitudes. Mean annual temperatures range from -8.5°C at Jungfraujoch to 9.1°C at Brig.


The underlying geology strongly influences the diversity of the vegetation. Most species are calcicole or calcifuge. The distribution and diversity of species are also strongly influenced by altitude, aspect and climate. Although the growing period is inversely proportional to the altitude, there are 529 species of phanerogams and pterydophytes above the tree line.

Despite the fact that much of the site is covered by glaciers, snow and rock, there are several forests and vegetation zones. Broadleaf forest extends from 900 m to 1,300 m on the north- facing slopes. The same zonation on south-facing slopes is approximately 200 m higher. This forest is dominated by beech Fagus sylvatica on the north side and by Scots pine Pinus sylvestris on the south side, which is too dry for beech. In Hinteres Lauterbrunnental in the north, the broadleaf forest zone is dominated by deciduous tree species such as sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus, grey alder Alnus incana, European ash Fraxinus exelsior, elm Ulmus glabra and silver birch Betula pendula. At higher altitudes broadleaf trees are replaced by Norway spruce Picea abies.The south-facing side of the range receives lower rainfall, greater solar exposure and consequently a xeric vegetation type, steppic grassland, which is typical of the central Valais. This grassland does not extend beyond 1,000 m. It consists of many xerophytic plant species such as Koeleria vallesiana, Festuca vallesiaca, Artemisia vallesiaca, Stipa pennata and Juniperus sabina.

The subalpine zone lies between the broadleaf and alpine zone at 1,300 m to 2,000 m. Norway spruce Picea abies is the characteristic species of this zone. In clear areas such as avalanche paths, green alder Alnus crispa proliferates. On the north-facing side, above Wengernalp and below Mittellegigrat, Norway spruce is mixed with dwarf Swiss mountain pine Pinus mugo ssp.mugo, European mountain ash Sorbus aucuparia and silver birch Betula pendula. Continental species replace Norway spruce on exposed south-facing slopes.Young soils such as proglacial margins are very quickly colonized by larch Larix decidua. In contrast, climax forests are dominated by stone pine Pinus cembra.

A good example of succession from pioneer vegetation to a climax forest occurs on the border of the Aletsch Glacier and in the Aletsch Forest. The moraine in this area was deposited in 1850, during the maximum extension of the glacier. As the glacier recedes, the mineral-rich moraine continues to be colonized by a pioneer vegetation of herbaceous plants, grasses, larch, spruce and aspen. On either side of the 1850 moraine, a larch and spruce forest has developed, characterized by ericaceous moorland dominated by Rhododendron ferrugineum and blueberry Vaccinium myrtillus.The zone directly above the tree line forms a girdle of moorland vegetation of Rhododendron hirsutum on base- rich soils and Rhododendron ferrugineum on acidic soils.Alpine grassland within the area is widespread and varies according to the nature of the substrate, slope aspect and altitude.


caption Rhine Falls at Neuhausen. (Source: Parkovi Flora and Fauna)

The fauna of the site is predominantly of species adapted to subalpine and alpine conditions. Typical species are ungulates such as the chamois Rupicapra rupicapra, alpine ibex Capra ibex, red deer Cervus elaphus and roe deer Capreolus capreolus. Other common mammals include the mountain hare Lepus timidus, fox Vulpes vulpes, ermine Mustela erminea, weasel Mustela nivalis, stone marten Martes foina, marmot Marmota marmota and the reintroduced European lynx Felis lynx. Common reptile species include asp viper Vipera aspis, viviparous lizard Lacerta vivipara, wall lizard Podarcis muralis and the green lizard Lacerta viridis. This latter species is only present on the Valais slope. Important amphibian species occurring within the site include alpine salamander Salamandra atra and Alpine newt Triturus alpestris. Owing to its warmer climate, greater numbers of invertebrates are found in the Valais. A glacier species of particular note is the glacier flea Isotoma saltans, a species of springtail.

Birds include lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus, golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos, European kestrel Falco tinnunculus, black grouse Tetrao tetrix, hazel grouse Bonasa bonasia, chukar Alectoris graeca, rock ptarmigan Lagopus mutus, Tengmalm's owl Aegolius funereus and pygmy owl Glaucidium passerinum, black woodpecker Dryocopus martius, great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos major, green woodpecker Picus viridis, yellow-billed chough Pyrrhocorax graculus, red-billed chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, European nutcracker Nucifraga caryacatactes, wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria, rock thrush, Monticolla saxatilis and snow finch Montifrigilla nivalis.

Cultural Heritage

The surrounding area has a long history of habitation. Research on the evolution of vegetation reveals that human intervention in the landscape began approximately 3,400 years ago. There is archaeological evidence that the area was inhabited by Celts, Romans and Alemans. There are remains of an elaborate canal irrigation system dating from the Middle Ages or possibly from Roman times, the canals obtaining their water from glacial rivers. Mining and quarrying were also carried out in the area. At the beginning of the 18th Century, an iron mine existed in Trachsellauenen, in the Hinteres Lauterbrunnental but it was abandoned in 1805. Molybdenum was extracted from the granite in Baltschieder during the second world war, from a unique occurrence where molybdenum is present in granite as molybdenite.

Local Human Population

The area surrounding the site has been inhabited by man for centuries. Primary activities in the region today include agriculture, particularly livestock breeding, tourism, scientific research and hunting. However, the main glacial and mountainous areas of the site are not permanently inhabited throughout the year except for the Jungfrau train station and scientific research station, both at Jungfraujoch.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

The area has long been a popular tourist destination, particularly since the 19th century. At first it received mostly summer tourists, but in the 1930s skiing became popular. Due to the steep slopes, visitors except for mountaineers, are only able to visit the site via the Jungfrau railway and the Trümmelbach funicular. The Jungfrau railway was built between 1870 and 1914, taking visitors from Kleine Scheidegg (2,061 m) to Jungfraujoch (3,454 m). The site as a whole is popular among experienced mountaineers. There is an important series of mountain refuges, most of which belong to the Swiss Alpine Club or to the Berne Academic Alpine Club. There is a well developed network]of footpaths near the site, though most of it is inaccessible to walkers.

There is no visitors' center but the Aletsch Ecological Centre at the Villa Cassel run by Pro Natura in Riederalp, has a similar function. The villa has an alpine garden and Pro Natura organize exhibitions, walks, classes and seminars and training on environmental issues. Visitor numbers to the site are not fully known. However, the Aletsch Forest receives 50,000 to 70,000 visitors a year. There are no ski resorts on the property, but skiing at their own risk by experienced sportsmen is long established.

Scientific Research and Facilities

A high altitude scientific research station at Jungfraujoch, is at 3,500 m, at a height unique in Europe. Permanently accessible via the Jungfrau railway, the research center is well placed for the study of the physical environment, the atmosphere and astronomy. Research areas that are particularly strong include geology, glaciology, geomorphology, botany, zoology and tourism.

Conservation Management

A management plan for the site has yet to be produced. Its objectives will focus primarily on protecting natural processes to maintain the natural dynamics of the environment. A national biodiversity monitoring program is being established in Switzerland.Currently several habitats in the site are of national importance and recorded in the federal inventories of raised and transitional bogs and fens of national importance. These are the transitional bog of Aletschwald (N°.941) and two fen moorlands, Understeinberg (N°.606) and Station Wengernalp (N°.607). Two sites are also listed on the federal inventory of alluvial zones of national importance. These are N°.115 Langgletscher Jegigletscher and N°.1118 Üssre Baltschiedergletscher. According to the law relevant to the protection of alluvial zones of national importance (RS 451.31), alluvial zones of national importance must be left intact.

Several game reserves in the Valais area, such as Aletschwald (N°.32), Alpjuhorn (N°.33), Wilerhorn (N°.34) and Bietschhorn (N°.35), are ruled by the laws on hunting (Loi fédérale sur la chasse et la protection des mammifères et oiseaux sauvages, RS 922.0) and by the federal law on the preservation of nature and landscape). These areas are conserved as vital to mammals and wild birds, and it is forbidden to hunt or disturb the animals. Appropriate agricultural and silvicultural methods must be used and applied in these areas. Hunting ibex within the site is ruled by an ordinance (Ordonnance sur la régulation des populations de bouquetins RS 922.27). The mountain hare Lepus timidus, the rock ptarmigan Lagopus mutus and the black grouse Tetrao tetrix are hunted in the Valais but not in Berne Canton. All the species that can be hunted benefit from a protection period, set by federal authority, that can be extended by the Canton (article 5 of law RS 922.0).

Contracts have been signed between several communities, the Swiss Confederation represented by the Office Fédéral des Eaux et de la Géologie, and the Canton of Valais. These contracts agree to the renunciation of the rights to hydraulic power for 40 years, following l'Ordonnance sur la compensation des pertes subies dans l'utilisation de la force hydraulique which forbids constructing any building, and any modification of the land. The nature conservation organization Pro Natura, has signed a 99 year contract with the community of Ried-Mörel south of the World Heritage site for the protection of the Aletsch forest.

Management Constraints

Global warming and climate change is a significant threat to these glaciers, and is resulting in marked glacial retreat. Studies undertaken and oscillations observed between 1850 and 1973 indicate that only three-quarters of the 1973 glaciers currently remain. Effectively removing waste and wastewater from mountain huts located within the nominated area is another problem. At Jungfraujoch, the problem is solved by moving wastewater to the Grindel water treatment centre via Kleine Scheidegg.


Exact details of the staffing levels of the site are not available. All the employees, working at district or national level to protect the property are also engaged in other management activities. Employees responsible for the protection of nature and landscape in Cantonal offices have academic training and university degrees, usually in biology or geography.


Detailed information regarding the funding and total budget of the property is not available. General costs of the site such as monitoring and maintenance are financed by individual Cantons through their annual budgets. Additionally, Pro Natura invests money in the nature protection areas of Hinteres Lauterbrunnental as well as financing monitoring of the Aletsch Forest.

IUCN Management Category

  • IV Aletsch Bietschhorn. Protected Landscape
  • Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed 2001. Natural Criteria i, ii, iii.

Further Reading

The nomination document includes a comprehensive bibliography.

  • Albrecht, L. (1997). Aletsch - eine landschaft erzählt. Die Reichtümer der Natur im Wallis 4:1-192.
  • Anchisi, E. (1995). Fleurs rares du Valais. Les Richesses de la Nature en Valais 3:1-192.
  • Anker, D. (1996). Jungfrau - Zauberberg der Männer. Bergmonographie 1, AS Verlag Zürich, 141pp.
  • Anker, D. (1997). Finsteraarhorn - Die Einsame Spitze. Bergmonographie 2, AS Verlag Zürich, 128pp.
  • Anker, D. (1998). Eiger - Die Vertikale Arena. Bergmonographie 3, AS Verlag Zürich, 288pp.
  • Burri, M. (1992). Les roches. Connaître la Nature en Valais, 1-158.
  • Cadisch, J. (1953). Geologie der Schweizer Alpen. Wepf Basel, 480pp.
  • Delarze, R., Gonseth, Y. & Galland P. (1998). Guide des Milieux Naturals des Suisse. Delachaux et Niestlé, Lausanne. 413pp
  • Halder, U. (2000). Die Villa Cassel im Spiegel der Zeit - 3. Auflage, ?berarbeitet und Ergänzt von L.Albrecht . Pro Natura Zentrum Aletsch. 88pp.
  • Office Fédéral de l'Environnement, des Forêts et du Paysage. (OFEFP) (1998). Conception 'Paysage Suisse'. OFEFP, Office Fédéral de l'Amenagement du Territoire.133pp.
  • Office Fédéral de l'Environnement, des Forêts et du Paysage. (OFEFP) (2000). Proposition d'Inscription du Bien 'Jungfrau-Aletsh-Bietschorn' sur la Liste du Patrimoine Mondial. Berne, Suisse.
  • Richard, J-L. (1987). Dynamique de la végétation sur les marges glaciaires récentes de la réserve d'Aletsch (Alpes valaisannes, Suisse). 15 ans d'observation dans les placettes-témoins (1971-1986). Botanica Helvetia 97, 265-275.



Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.








M, U. (2012). Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn, Switzerland. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbee457896bb431f69693b


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