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With an area of 41,285 square kilometres (15,940 sq mi), Switzerland is a small country. The population is about 7.6 million, resulting in an average population density of 174 people per square kilometer (1186/sq mi). However, the more mountainous southern half of the country is far more sparsely populated than this average, while the northern half has a somewhat greater density, as it comprises more hospitable hilly terrain, partly forested and partly cleared, as well as several large lakes.
Switzerland comprises three basic topographical areas: the Swiss Alps, the Swiss plateau or "middleland", and the Jura mountains along the northwestern border with France. The Alps are a high mountain range running across the central-south of the country, comprising about 60% of the country's total area. Among the high peaks of the Swiss Alps, the highest of which is the Dufourspitze at 4,634 metres (15,203 ft), countless valleys are found, many with waterfalls and glaciers. From these the headwaters of several major European rivers such as the Rhine, Rhône, Inn, Aare, and Ticino flow finally into the largest Swiss lakes such as Lake Geneva (Lac Léman), Lake Zürich, Lake Neuchâtel, and Lake Constance.
The most famous mountain is the Matterhorn (4,478 m) in Valais and Pennine Alps bordering Italy. The highest mountain, the Dufourspitze (4,634 m) in the Monte Rosa Massif (close to the Matterhorn) is followed by the Dom and Weisshorn. The section of the Bernese Alps above the deep glacial Lauterbrunnen valley containing 72 waterfalls is also well known for the Jungfrau (4,158 m), Mönch, Eiger group of peaks, and the many picturesque valleys in the region. In the southeast the long Engadin Valley, encompassing the St Moritz area in canton Graubünden, is also well known; the highest peak in the neighbouring Bernina Alps is Piz Bernina (4,049 m).
The more populous northern part of the country, comprising about 30% of the country's total area, is called the Middle Land. It has greater open and hilly landscapes, partly forested, partly open pastures, usually with grazing herds, or vegetables and fruit fields, but it is still hilly. There are large lakes found here and the biggest Swiss cities are in this area of the country. The largest lake is Lake Geneva (also called Lac Léman in French), in the West of Switzerland. The Rhone River is the main tributary to Lake Geneva.
The Swiss climate is generally temperate, but can vary greatly between the localities, from glacial conditions on the mountaintops to the often pleasant Mediterranean climate at Switzerland's southern tip. Summers tend to be warm and humid at times with periodic rainfall so they are ideal for pastures and grazing. The winters in the mountains alternate with sun and snow, while the lower lands tend to be more cloudy and foggy in winter. A weather phenomenon known as the föhn can occur at all times of the year, even in winter, and is characterized by a wind with warm Mediterranean air crossing the Alps from Italy. The driest conditions persist in the southern valleys of the Wallis/Valais above which valuable saffron is harvested and many wine grapes are grown, Graubünden also tends to be drier in climate and slightly colder, yet with plentiful snow in winter. The wettest conditions persist in the high Alps and in the Ticino canton which has much sun yet heavy bursts of rain from time to time. The east tends to be colder than the west of Switzerland, yet anywhere up high in the mountains can experience a cold spell at any time of the year. Precipitation tends to be spread moderately throughout the year, with minor variations across the seasons depending on locale. Autumn frequently tends to be the driest season, yet the weather patterns in Switzerland can be highly variable from year to year, and difficult to predict.
Switzerland's eco-systems can be particularly vulnerable, because of the many delicate valleys separated by high mountains, often forming unique ecologies. The mountainous regions themselves are also vulnerable, with a rich range of plants not found at other altitudes, and experience some pressure from visitors and grazing. The tree line in the mountains of Switzerland has advanced down 1,000 ft (300 m) over the years, largely because of the increasing absence of herding and grazing pressures.
Source: Wikipedia Encyclopedia
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