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Austria is a small, predominantly mountainous country located in south-central Europe. It has a total area of 83,859 square kilometers, about twice the size of Switzerland and slightly smaller than the state of Maine. The landlocked country shares national borders with Switzerland and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein to the west (200 kilometers together), Germany (784 kilometers) and the Czech Republic and Slovakia (568 kilometers together) to the north, Hungary to the east (346 kilometers), and Slovenia (311 kilometers) and Italy (430 kilometers) to the south.
The westernmost third of the somewhat pear-shaped country consists of a narrow corridor between Germany and Italy that is between thirty-two and sixty kilometers wide. The rest of Austria lies to the east and has a maximum north-south width of 280 kilometers. The country measures almost 600 kilometers in length, extending from Lake Constance on the Austrian-Swiss border in the west to the Neusiedler See on the Austrian-Hungarian border in the east. The contrast between these two lakes--one in the Alps and the other a typical steppe lake on the westernmost fringe of the Hungarian Plain--illustrates the diversity of Austria's landscape.
Seven of Austria's nine provinces have long historical traditions predating the establishment of the Republic of Austria in 1918: Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Salzburg, Tirol, and Vorarlberg. The provinces of Burgenland and Vienna were established after World War I. Most of Burgenland had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary, but it had a predominantly German-speaking population and hence became Austrian. Administrative and ideological reasons played a role in the establishment of Vienna as an independent province. Vienna, historically the capital of Lower Austria, was a socialist stronghold, whereas Lower Austria was conservative, and both socialists and conservatives wanted to consolidate their influence in their respective provinces. Each province has a provincial capital with the exception of Vienna, which is a province in its own right in addition to being the federal capital. In Vienna, the City Council and the mayor function as a provincial parliament and provincial governor, respectively.
The two best-known features of the Austrian landscape are the Alps and the Danube River. The Danube has its source in southwestern Germany and flows through Austria before emptying into the Black Sea. It is the only major European river that flows eastward, and its importance as an inland waterway has been enhanced by the completion in 1992 of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal in Bavaria, which connects the Rhine and Main rivers with the Danube and makes possible barge traffic from the North Sea to the Black Sea.
The major rivers north of the watershed of the Austrian Alps (the Inn in Tirol, the Salzach in Salzburg, and the Enns in Styria and Upper Austria) are direct tributaries of the Danube and flow north into the Danube Valley, whereas the rivers south of the watershed in central and eastern Austria (the Gail and Drau rivers in Carinthia and the Mürz and Mur rivers in Styria) flow south into the drainage system of the Drau, which eventually empties into the Danube in Serbia. Consequently, central and eastern Austria are geographically oriented away from the watershed of the Alps: the provinces of Upper Austria and Lower Austria toward the Danube and the provinces of Carinthia and Styria toward the Drau.
The Alps cover 62 percent of the country's total area. Three major Alpine ranges--the Northern Alps, Central Alps, and Southern Alps--run west to east through Austria. The Central Alps, which consist largely of a granite base, are the largest and highest ranges in Austria. The Central Alps run from Tirol to approximately the Styria-Lower Austria border and include areas that are permanently glaciated in the Ötzal Alps on the TiroleanItalian border and the High Tauern in eastern Tirol and Carinthia. The Northern Alps, which run from Vorarlberg through Tirol into Salzburg along the German border and through Upper Austria and Lower Austria toward Vienna, and the Southern Alps, on the Carinthia-Slovenia border, are predominantly limestone and dolomite. At 3,797 meters, Grossglockner in Carinthia is the highest mountain in Austria. As a general rule, the farther east the Northern Alps and Central Alps run, the lower they become. The altitude of the mountains also drops north and south of the central ranges.
As a geographic feature, the Alps literally overshadow other landform regions. Just over 28 percent of Austria is moderately hilly or flat: the Northern Alpine Foreland, which includes the Danube Valley; the lowlands and hilly regions in northeastern and eastern Austria, which include the Danube Basin; and the rolling hills and lowlands of the Southeastern Alpine Foreland. The parts of Austria that are most suitable for settlement--that is, arable and climatically favorable--run north of the Alps through the provinces of Upper Austria and Lower Austria in the Danube Valley and then curve east and south of the Alps through Lower Austria, Vienna, Burgenland, and Styria. Austria's least mountainous landscape is southeast of the low Leitha Range, which forms the southern lip of the Viennese Basin, where the steppe of the Hungarian Plain begins. The Bohemian Granite Massif, a low mountain range with bare and windswept plateaus and a harsh climate, is located north of the Danube Valley and covers the remaining 10 percent of Austria's area.
Land-use patterns in Austria change from Alpine to non-Alpine regions. Approximately one-tenth of Austria is barren or unproductive, that is, extremely Alpine or above the tree line. Just over two-fifths of Austria is covered by forests, the majority of which are in Alpine regions. Less than one-fifth of Austria is arable and suitable for conventional agriculture. The percentage of arable land in Austria increases in the east as the country becomes less Alpine. More than one-fifth of Austria is pastures and meadows located at varying altitudes. Almost onehalf of this grassland consists of high-lying Alpine pastures.
Historically, high Alpine pastures have been used during the summer for grazing dairy cattle, thus making space available at lower altitudes for cultivating and harvesting fodder for winter. Many of the high pastures are at altitudes of more than 1,000 meters.
Although agriculture in mountainous areas was at one time economically viable, in recent decades it has survived only with the help of extensive subsidies. A concern of farmers in these mountainous regions is that membership in the European Union might entail a curtailment of these subsidies and the end of Alpine agriculture. If this occurs, many areas will be reclaimed by nature after centuries of cultivation.
Although the Alps are beautiful, they make many areas of Austria uninhabitable. Austria's so-called areas of permanent settlement--regions that are cultivated, continuously inhabited, and used for transportation, but do not include forests, Alpine pastures, or barren land--cover only four-tenths or 35,000 square kilometers of the country. The great majority of the area of permanent settlement is in the Danube Valley and the lowlands or hilly regions north, east, and south of the Alps, where approximately two-thirds of the population live.
In the country's predominantly Alpine provinces, most of the population live in river valleys: Bregenz on the shores of Lake Constance in Vorarlberg; Innsbruck on the Inn River in Tirol; Salzburg on the Salzach River in Salzburg; and Klagenfurt on the Gail River in Carinthia. The higher the Alps are, the less inhabitable they become in terms of soil, microclimate, and vegetation. Conversely, the lower and broader the Alpine valleys are, the more densely populated they become.
Tirol illustrates most clearly the relationship between Alpine geography and habitation. As the most mountainous province (less than 3 percent of the land is arable), it is the most sparsely inhabited, with an area of permanent settlement of only 15 percent.
Because of the Alps, the country as a whole is one of the least densely populated states of Western and Central Europe. With ninety-three inhabitants per square kilometer, Austria has a population density similar to that of the former Yugoslavia.
Austria's national borders and geography have corresponded very little. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Alps and the Danube have not served to mark political boundaries. Even within Austria, provincial borders were only occasionally set by the ranges and ridges of the Alps.
Although the Alps did not mark political boundaries, they often separated groups of people from one another. Because in the past the Alps were impassable, inhabitants isolated in valleys or networks of valleys developed distinct regional subcultures. Consequently, the inhabitants of one valley frequently maintained dialects, native or traditional dress, architectural styles, and folklore that substantially differed from those of the next valley. Differences were great enough that the origins of outsiders could easily be identified. However, mass media, mobility, prosperity, and tourism have eroded the distinctness of Alpine regional subcultures to a great extent by reducing the isolation that gave them their particular character.
Despite the Alps, Austria has historically been a land of transit. The Danube Valley, for centuries Central Europe's aquatic link to the Balkan Peninsula and the "Orient" in the broadest sense of the word, has always been an avenue of eastwest transit. However, Europe's division into two opposing economic and military blocs after World War II diminished Austria's importance as a place of transit. Since the opening of Eastern Europe in 1989, the country has begun to reassume its historical role. By the early 1990s, it had already experienced a substantial increase in the number of people and vehicles crossing its eastern frontiers.
Within the Alps, four passes and the roads that run through them are of particular importance for north-south transit. The Semmering Pass on the provincial border of Lower Austria and Styria connects the Viennese Basin with the Mürz and Mur valleys, thus providing northeast-southwest access to Styria and Slovenia, and, via Carinthia, to Italy.
The Phryn Pass between the provinces of Upper Austria and Styria and the Tauern Pass between the High Tauern Range and the Low Tauern Range of the Central Alps in Salzburg, provide access to the Mur Valley in Styria and the Drau Valley in Carinthia, respectively. The highways that run through these passes are important northwest-southeast lines of communication through the Alps. The Phyrn highway has been nicknamed the "foreign workers' route" because millions of "guest workers" in Germany use it to return to their homes in the Balkans and Turkey for vacation. Many Germans and northern Europeans also use it in the summer months to reach the Adriatic coast. After the outbreak of hostilities in Yugoslavia in the summer of 1991, however, a substantial amount of this traffic was rerouted through the Danube Valley and Hungary.
The most important pass in the Austrian Alps is the Brenner Pass, located on the Austrian-Italian border in Tirol. At 1,370 meters, it is one of the lowest Alpine passes. The Inn Valley and the Brenner Pass historically have been an important and convenient route of north-south transit between Germany and Italy, and they provide the most direct route between Europe's two most highly industrialized regions--Germany and northern Italy.
The Alps serve as a watershed for Europe's three major kinds of weather systems that influence Austrian weather. The Atlantic maritime climate from the northwest is characterized by lowpressure fronts, mild air from the Gulf Stream, and precipitation. It has the greatest influence on the northern slopes of the Alps, the Northern Alpine Foreland, and the Danube Valley. The continental climate is characterized by low-pressure fronts with precipitation in summer and high-pressure systems with cold and dry air in winter. It affects mainly eastern Austria. Mediterranean high-pressure systems from the south are characterized by few clouds and warm air, and they influence the weather of the southern slopes of the Alps and that of the Southeastern Alpine Foreland, making them the most temperate part of Austria.
One peculiarity of the Mediterranean weather systems is the föhn, a warm air mass that originates in the African Sahara and moves north rapidly, periodically raising temperatures up to 10°C in a short period of time. Many people respond to this rapid weather change with headaches, irritability, and circulatory problems. During the winter, the rapid warming that accompanies a föhn can thaw the snow cover in the Alps to such an extent that avalanches occur.
Given the importance of Alpine skiing for the Austrian tourist industry, December is the month during which the weather is watched with the greatest anticipation. As a rule, Atlantic maritime weather systems bring snow, and continental weather systems help keep it. However, a predominance of cold, dry continental systems or warm Mediterranean ones inevitably postpone the beginning of the ski season. In the summer, Mediterranean high-pressure systems bring warm, sunny weather.
SOURCES: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook